About “The Anthropophagic Soldier”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Orange and Lemon Games, 1999


Three questions for Tales Ab'Sáber (and his readers)

Having read and debated, with the author himself, The anthropophagic soldier: slavery and non-thought in Brazil, an impressive book in so many aspects and for so many reasons, here I address three questions, now extended to the new readers that the text deserves to have, in order to reverberate and explore ambivalences that caught my attention from my first reading of the work.


As a professor and researcher in the field of literary studies, it is natural that my interest in the book focuses mainly on the place occupied and the function played by literature in archeology, or genealogy, to use two Foucauldian terms, undertaken by Tales Ab'Sáber in the book.

Archeology or genealogy, of course, of “non-thought”, of the slave structure of “non-thought” in Brazil, but which would also reveal itself, in an important sense, to be an archeology or genealogy of the conditions of possibility of literature in Brazil.

Evoking, therefore, a more Foucauldian than Kantian meaning of the idea of ​​“conditions of possibility”, one could ask, with Tales Ab'Sáber: When (and why) do Machado de Assis or Joaquim Nabuco?

In this regard, Tales Ab'Sáber is very close to the tradition of literary study that goes back to Antonio Candido and, above all, Roberto Schwarz, to which, in fact, he explicitly affiliates, and in line with which the “literary form” is thought, as a rule, in homology with the “social process”.

It is not surprising, therefore, that, in the narrative that is woven in the book, the literary work appears much less as an object and much more as an index – sometimes, even, as a symptom – of a certain social structure, or a certain structure of thought. ; but sometimes this is not what happens.

And I would like to draw attention to the moments in which Tales Ab'Sáber seems, in fact, to complexify his idea of ​​literature, of literary discourse and the function that this would have both in the story he wants to tell and in the economy of his own discourse. .

It seems to me that this is made explicit, for example, in the prologue of the book, entitled “We are contemporaries of our slavery”, in which, at one point, there is talk of “six main ways of conceiving our slavery” (AB'SÁBER , 2022, p. 28) – ways, of course, in addition to the “abolitionist discourse gradually accentuated after 1860” (Ibid., p. 28), among which the one related to the “anthropophagic soldier” in the title of the book stands out. book: the German Carl Schlichthorst.

Alongside it, three other modes, in a total of four, are therefore named after writers – Gonzaga, Gonçalves Dias, Alencar –, all prior to the “decisive moment” (to use Antonio Candido's term) Machadian, at the turn which even serves as a guide for Tales to evaluate the value of the work of his protagonist, the so-called German “anthropophagic soldier”.

Thales Ab'Sáber speaks to us, therefore, in relation to such writers, of “ways of conceiving our slavery”. I draw attention to the verb now associated with the literary production aimed at by the author, which is not “represent”, or “document”, or “photograph”, but rather “conceive”.

Well, the verb points to a possibility of something, one would say some power of literary discourse, which would not be that of a mere reproduction, but that of a true production of “our slavery”, understood here, therefore, as a conception of poetic or narrative discourse, or, better said, conceptions, depending on the “way of conceiving” in action in this or that literary work under consideration.

There is, therefore, a gap in the book to think about literature producing something that would not simply be predicted by the social structure, but rather shaped by one of the aforementioned “ways of conceiving”, or, since we are dealing with modalities of discourse, “ways of saying”, specifies Tales Ab'Sáber: “ways of saying our popular life that had contact with the working, enslaved and black people, Africans who became Brazilians by force” (Ibid., p. 28).

Turning, with the author, to these different “ways of saying” slavery in Brazil, we can think, in terms of literary studies, from a perspective that approaches narrative and/or poetic discourse rather as the production of images, therefore as a certain imagetic performance, rather than as a mere observation, or as a reflection, or as an index, or as a symptom.

Thus, according to Tales Ab'Sáber: (i) the “mode of silence, or power as an act and symbolic refusal”, the main way for the elites “to operate the culture of slavery, at least until the end of the 1850s in Brazil” (Ibid., p. 29); (ii) the “Vilhena way, or the power against eroticism”, guided by the “affirmative refusal of the value of popular life and the culture that emanates from it, strict police control of the lives of the poor, explicit police political control of public spaces in cities ” (Ibd., p. 30).

(iii) The “Gonçalves Dias way, or the denunciation of the unsaid”, which would have been configured in some poems, but especially in the dialogue “Meditação” (1846), a text that the poet would not publish in any of his works. Songs, and which openly anticipates, observes Tales (Ibid., p. 31), “the abolitionist discourse, Joaquim Nabuco and even Caio Prado Júnior”; (iv) the “Schlichthorst mode, or enjoyment, eroticism and culture”, characterized by the “ambivalence of a look that sees the Brazilian exception, from the point of view of the omnipresence of violence, enjoys something of its racism and the possession of bodies, but also the need for social life to live and create modes of existence, material and symbolic” (Ibid., p. 31).

(v) The “Gonzaga way, recognition from a distance”, something like a “suspended contemplation” of popular culture from an “ironic and negative, satirical, from above” point of view, from which “popular culture, of African origin, could circulate through the hybrid circuits of elite and power, as long as the poor and black people always remain well placed in their final original place” (Ibid., p. 32-33); (vi) the “Alencar way, patriarchal conservatism and backwardness”, which is confused with “the emergence of the reactive voice and its project” in the face of the rise of strong abolitionism at the end of the 33th century (Ibid., p. XNUMX).

My first question, then, has to do with this dimension, these ways of saying, of conceiving, as a performative power of narrative discourse or poetic discourse not simply to react, or reproduce, or somatize, but to produce something more actively .

Unless I'm mistaken, in all the aforementioned ways of saying it can be noticed a bivalence: on the one hand, there is something that we could call an “event”, in the sense of a “historical event”: this was possible at this moment with Gonçalves Dias ; that, at another time, with Gonzaga, etc., etc.; on the other hand, Tales seems to suggest what we could call a “structure effect”, that is, something that would remain active, contemporaneously, as a line of force of (non)thought in Brazil: in a certain line, from Gonçalves Dias to Nabuco, to Caio Prado Jr and beyond; in a second line, in clear tension with the first, from Alencar to Bolsonarism; in a third, from Gonzaga to “our educated and elite middle class” when they go “to carnival and Bahia” and then “return to our cultural halls, where poor and black people continue to serve us” (Ibid., p. 33); in a fourth, which would seem to Tales, above all, a line of flight, from the German “anthropophagic soldier” to modern Brazilian anthropophagy.

We can, therefore, in short, ask ourselves to what extent the ways of saying popular culture diachronically identified by Tales Ab'Sáber would not allow themselves to be perceived synchronically as lines of force (in a field of forces) of the production, circulation and reception of conforming discourses of otherness (and identity) in contemporary Brazil.


Let us now focus on the ambivalence concerning the book's great protagonist, Carl Schlichthorst, the paradoxical “anthropophagic soldier” by Tales Ab'Sáber, presented by Tiago Ferro in the volume's cover: “Modern, updated and open, free from the pacts of conciliation silent of slave interests, Schlichthorst sees and lives (and deciphers and devours!) the urban culture created by enslaved people which, according to Thales' analysis, will lead, around a hundred years later, to the mestizo matrix of much of our best production of the 20th century, including the ideological culturalist outlets that had their last breath with the tropicalists led by Caetano Veloso. The implications of the hypothesis are numerous.”

This highlights the more solar side, so to speak, of the German mercenary soldier who traveled around Rio de Janeiro between 1824 and 1826, having later recorded his impressions of what he saw and experienced in a volume entitled Rio de Janeiro as it is, published in 1829 in Germany and in 1943 in Brazil, and which will be the object of Tales' close attention in his book, especially the soldier's almost dream-like account of the impact generated on him by the casual appearance, on a Rio beach, of a young black woman candy seller who then sings and dances in front of him.

Let us remember, however, that, right from the start, when dealing with the “Schlichthorst way”, Tales attributes this view to: “The origin of our erotic-cultural ambivalence, positive as a place of recognition of the popular act, but controlling the limits of action politics of the poor in this erotic-symbolic-interested continent and, therefore, also sexist, sexist and perverse in another degree of commitment. Enjoyable cultural field, based on aesthetic forms linked to the body, with its background of violence and resistance. Or, in other words, cultural, productive, politically framed, controlled and guided sexual relationship” (Ibid., p. 32).

This strong ambivalence will remain, as a rule, in Tales' references to Schlichthorst and his work on Rio de Janeiro. In them, we sometimes feel our hand weighing a little in the attempt to draw the figure of the first relevant writer of the Brazilian 19th century. Still, ambivalence prevails: Tales Ab'Sáber does not conclude his book by endorsing some pacifying image of this supposed nineteenth-century precursor of anthropophagy and tropicalism; far from it.

Towards the end, Tales asks himself: “The sexual action of masters and slaves on the streets and in city life diminished the violent pain of captivity, as a utopian micropolitical gesture of encounter, driven by pleasure that wants to purify the order of terror… or… , it increased… as a production of culture of recognition and subjectification only since then, this desire has been restricted, forcibly sublimating the most general terrors to the extent that it has become a new order of biopolitical captivity?” (Ibid., p. 283-284).

And further: “We can consider the degraded game of seduction in the society entirely deformed by slavery something that belongs to the contemporary political right to the body and to feminine – and black – erotic affirmation, or in it in fact everything is corrosion of character, perversion and use and abuse of the enslaved body?” (Ibid, p. 286).

And further: “It is possible to respond definitively to this social game of paradoxes, defined by a violent power structure, but which evokes the creative power of the sexual, expressed in art – a sublimation that keeps the arc of desire alive – as a source of possibilities, concrete human and social, in an unknown and confrontational way, even if subtle, of traditional European sexual formation, at the same time that everything around alienates it?” (Ibid., p. 287).

In the face of this indissoluble ambivalence, what place does the German soldier ultimately occupy in the story that Tales wants to tell us about slavery and “non-thought” in Brazil, including in the history of Brazilian literature that would unfold from the first?

“Foreign perspective, 100% Brazilian book”, says the author (Ibid., p. 137).

The permanent risk here would not even be that of a reading that ultimately dissolves the uncomfortable ambivalence of the protagonist of The anthropophagic soldier towards the fetishization of the character as a kind of great precursor of everything and everyone, that is, of a different tradition in the face of slavery as “the ultimate dream of our authoritarians” (Ibid., p. 22)?


Here we are, then, faced with the dilemma of how, after all, to read Schlichthorst today.

A dilemma that exorbits, as can be seen, from the place where the author in question speaks (who says what, and about what, and why?) towards that of a place where he listens to the speech he delivers, and which we then critically address two centuries later.

Reader Tales Ab'Sáber seems aware of the dilemma. At a certain point in his book, what could be called a “reading contract” explicitly emerges, in view of which, of course, the conditions of possibility would be established for reading Schlichthorst as he then does, in the light of including the possibility that the German author will be read in a different way from his own, that is, not necessarily as an admirable “anthropophagic soldier”.

Here it is, the contract: “He [Schlichthorst] can speak explicitly about the perverse barbarity that has become the culture of the masters of the sexual attraction released by very young black girls, without pruritus, who were offered to them on country farms, revealing with clarity and actuality a always hidden aspect of the slave civilization and the unlimited nature of the master's enjoyments, in a way that, for part of the current critical consciousness, practically invalidates their work. Truly despicable elements of a largely despicable reality punctuate, here and there, and frequently, his work. When reading his Brazilian memoirs we need to be able to tolerate that the same narrator who reveals and clarifies abject aspects of early national life also lives them as privileges available to men like him, and enjoys the Brazil that he reveals, finds strange and almost denounces” (Ibid. , p. 140-141).

These are the conditions: despite a certain “part of current critical consciousness” for which the German’s work would automatically sound invalid, it would be necessary to “be able to tolerate” the ambivalence constitutive of Schlichthorst’s way of conceiving-saying in order to be able to assess, in its entirety, what the soldier, between enjoyment and estrangement, “almost denounces”.

Turning, with Tales Ab'Sáber's warning in mind, to Carl Schlichthorst's own text, more specifically to the translation by Emmy Dodt and Gustavo Barroso that appears in the Brazilian edition of Rio de Janeiro as it is cited in The anthropophagic soldier, we would then have to stop at a passage like this: “Twelve years is the prime age of African women. There is, from time to time, such a charm in them that we forget the color. Black girls are generally strong and solid, with features denoting pleasant amiability, and all movements full of natural grace, feet and hands plastically beautiful. Dark red lips and white, shiny teeth invite you to kiss. Such a peculiar fire radiates from the eyes and the breast heaves with such eager desire that it is difficult to resist such seductions. Even the worthy Clapperton often shared the same sensations that assailed me at the moment, without being ashamed of it. Why should I allow myself to be influenced by European pride and deny a feeling that did not originate in low sensuality, but in the pure pleasure caused by a masterpiece of Creation? The girl in front of me was, in her own way, one of those masterpieces and, for her, I could use the English words: “a beautiful black lady” (SCHLICHTHORST, 1943, p. 203-204).

It is to passages like this, it is inferred, not uncommon in Schlichthorst's Brazilian memoirs, that Tales Ab'Sáber refers, when he urges us to “be able to tolerate” the abjection both mocked and stranged by the German soldier, who almost complaint. But the Brazilian edition of Rio de Janeiro as it is gives us more to think about.

The Lusophone translation of the German text signed, in the middle of the Getulista Novo Estado Novo, by the integralist Nazi sympathizer Gustavo Barroso (and his wife) is permeated by comments from Barroso himself in footnotes. Gustavo Barroso is particularly interested in the military history told by the German soldier, that is, his book as a document for military history in Brazil.

In view of the passages in the book that are of most interest to Tales Ab'Sáber, those in which slavery in Brazil, black girls, etc. are discussed, Gustavo Barroso's comments draw attention.

Given, for example, Schlichthorst's defense (Ibid., p. 80) that “it is precisely the mixing of blood that is most appropriate under the tropical sky”, Barroso (apoud SCHLICHTHORST, 1943, p. 80) comments, in a recriminating tone: “In this and other places in the book, the author, despite being German, makes a continuous profession of anti-racist faith”.

At another point, in which the German soldier, referring to the effect of “abundant food” and “good treatment” of “newly arrived blacks” in Brazil, observes: “The skin seems to be renewed and acquires a shiny blackness, their eyes fill with life and radiance, and in all their gestures young African women demonstrate a natural grace, which people in Europe commonly lack” (Ibid., p. 131), Barroso (apoud SCHLICHTHORST, 1943, p. 80) retorts: “The author doesn’t waste time praising black men and women…”

In the excerpt about the “age in bloom of African women” that I quoted above, Barroso (apoud SCHLICHTHORST, 1943, p. 204) insists: “Always the seduction of black women…”

We can thus glimpse a hermeneutic spectrum, so to speak, across which the various possible readings of Schlichthorst's Brazilian memories would be distributed.

At one end of the spectrum, the frank, openly racist recrimination of the author's “anti-racist profession of faith” (“despite being German”), which suffered from the “seduction of black women”, a recrimination whose integralist-militarist echoes in the discourse of the Brazilian extreme right today they would make us think about the long duration of a probable “Gustavo Barroso way, or nazifying sexual racism”…

At the other end of the spectrum, recrimination, ultimately the cancellation, so to speak, of the German author by “part of the current critical consciousness” for whom the racialized hypersexualization of black women's bodies would automatically invalidate his work.

Somewhere on the spectrum, between one extreme and the other, a fearless reading like that of Tales Ab'Sáber risks presenting the ambiguity of the “anthropophagic soldier” and his way of conceiving-saying slavery in Brazil, thinking and problematize the productivity and resonance of his “almost denunciation”.

And it would not be, after all, about the intervallic nature of this “almost”, between enjoyment and estrangement, that it is necessary, then, to reflect more slowly, under the title of an ambivalent and controversial drive going through the best, perhaps , was produced in modern Brazilian culture?

*Nabil Araújo He is a professor of Literary Theory at UERJ. Author, among other books, of About Forgiveness and Solidarity of the Living  (Editora Alameda). [https://amzn.to/4cd4qft]


Tales Ab'Saber. The anthropophagic soldier: slavery and non-thought in Brazil. São Paulo, n-1; Hedra, 2022. [https://amzn.to/3VmQo4c]


SCHLICHTHORST, Carl. Rio de Janeiro as it is (1824-1826). Trans. by Emmy Dodt and Gustavo Barroso. Rio de Janeiro: Getúlio Costa, 1943.

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