Current tasks of literary criticism

Image: Adir Sodré


The culture of neoliberal society calls into question the value and meaning of literature and the teaching of the history of literature for today's generations

The invitation to be here moves me for the possibility of expressing my recognition to USP's intellectuals, formalizing it in the person of Professor Aderaldo Castello, and scares me with the representativeness it generously assumes in me. I start talking about the fright, since the commotion doesn't go away. It is impossible to speak representing any USP generation, not only because of obvious personal limitations, but mainly because there is not enough evidence to authorize it.

What characterizes the study of the humanities in the generations at USP is the historicization or the continuous demand for particularization and specificity of every practice, which by definition prevent easy unifications and generalizations. This is not what the work of Maria Isaura Pereira de Queiroz, Antonio Candido, Aderaldo Castello and others demonstrate that it is impossible to name, but of whom I see Décio de Almeida Prado, Boris Schnaiderman, teaching with rare accuracy that it is necessary to have sufficient evidence documentaries and make enough criticism of categories and, sometimes, wait long enough to be able to say “that's how it is”?

And even then, while taking a look at the past, eyes on the present so as not to lose sight of the future, always include the contradiction in the result and doubt the acquired evidence? Knowing that I could present several evidences that many more qualified than I should be in this place, I must speak, however, of my recognition of the work of these intellectuals, it lives in me even when I forgot it, in such a way I absorbed it, like air, basic .

For me, who lives on literature, the fundamental question that must be addressed in this talk about the contributions of the USP generations is the meaning of time today, in the culture of neoliberal society. Several other issues are related to it, such as history and, in this case, specifically, literary history. Speaking of the contributions of the USP generations – I think this should be done in the sense of contributions to the systematization of culture and its democratic innovation in the country – I think it is pertinent to talk about the value of the transformations of the experience of the works of these intellectuals. They are animated works of a constructive endeavor that is fundamentally a critique of all forms of obscurantism.

Today, however, anti-democratic economic processes exclude gigantic masses from the productive consumption of culture, in a sense diametrically opposed to their efforts. Therefore, talking about the contribution of the USP generations does not imply only literary or academic options. When a significant portion of ex-intellectuals from various generations at USP allies itself with big capital that neutralizes culture and the critique of culture in the museum of everything in exchange as the classic and necessary counterpart of the validation of cultural goods, it is called into question the illustrated representation that letters, the criticism of letters and the history of letters have given themselves since the XNUMXth century – that of being progressive factors of transformation and enlightenment – ​​which also characterizes the work of these intellectuals.

It also calls into question, for this very reason, the value and meaning of literature and the teaching of the history of literature for today's generations. The issue becomes even more acute when we remember that the institutional place that gives theoretical existence to literary history and criticism, the university, is today at the forefront of these anti-democratic processes that I mentioned. In this new order of things, more than ever, everyday life and knowledge are not integrated, and the resulting lack of differentiation appears capitalized in the regressive and cynical forms of culture as the naturalized barbarism that we live in.

Of course, this is unfortunately not new. In Brazil, from the 1930s to the 1990s, the permanent non-integration of culture and life crossed and still crosses the critical USP generations. It is also a problem today, as it was a problem for previous generations, the value and meaning of the social uses of cultural materials. But in a different way, certainly, because now, when reality is “anything goes” and “anything goes”, as the Japanese say, the abandonment of critical negativity makes the question of “what to do” with the experience of the past in appropriations of the present no longer have relevance, mainly because the trend naturalized with somber euphoria also in university circles at USP is to appropriate experience in an uncritical, ahistorical or transhistorical way, according to the double dehistoricization that alienates past experience from particularity of its time and universalizes the particularity of the present as an eternity of mercantile exchange and misery.

For this very reason, the literary professional – the professor of literature, the researcher of literature, the literary critic, the literary historian – is asked the question of the criteria for determining the cultural value of the appropriations of products from the past, in order to combat the profound forgetting of the particularity of historical experience produced today by neoliberal ideology. She claims that time has run out and that the mercantile present will be eternal, which is why I would like to be able to believe that in the case of literature, for the new generations at USP, the political question of defining strategies for preserving the discipline is urgently posed of literary history as a critical discipline beyond its mere school maintenance as a trainer of hearts and minds adapted to the market.

After the radical decline of disciplines such as linguistics, sociology, ethnology, which in the 1960s and 1970s criticized it indirectly when they criticized the positivist empiricism of historians, the theoretical interest in the re-historicization of the conditions of production of literary history is also explained , in our case, for a contextual reason. It is the same one mentioned by David Perkins about the USA [1]: the students of the 1960s are the teachers of the 1980s and 1990s. With the exception of those who integrated into the various apparatuses, they would not have completely lost the political motivations of their youth.

Highlighting the relationships between social realities and literature, as Ideologiekritik, critique of ideology, their studies would engage in contemporary political issues, even when the theme addressed by them are the practices of a more than extinct and remote past, such as those of the so-called “Baroque”. In other words, denying the involvement of social conflict and power relations with the critical and literary texts we produce and read is equivalent to making our profession irrelevant, even more so in the neoliberal and competitive university. This is something I learned from Profa. Maria Isaura, from Prof. Candido, by Prof. Castello and many others.

I did not have the privilege of being a student of any of them in graduation. I came from another University and arrived at USP late – maybe early, depending on the perspective – after working for a few years as a public school teacher and prep courses. But he knew their texts. I came to know Prof. Castello personally in two Post-Graduation courses in Brazilian Literature, 25 years ago. In the first, on colonial letters, he proposed texts of various genres, not just fiction, on political, social, economic, cultural and aesthetic themes. He proposed them as constitutive documents of what he called “formation of critical ideas”.

The idea that guided the reading of the large mass of documents that relentlessly demanded that we register was that of describing and defining the unit, which I supposed was contradictory, of an aesthetic doctrine or a political position in the various practices of the sign in a determined chronological cut. For example, the seventeenth century, understood by “XVII”, in this case, a century that in Brazil lasts almost 200 years, and sometimes even more, when considering the various durations of the various structures of different dimensions. This contradictory unity would also be found in other contemporary practices of the sign, this is what the readings allowed to infer, as a defining homology of the specific mental form of the historical formation in question.

Its definition would gain systematicity not only theoretically, but through its empirical verification in the various material and social environments in which it occurred, which provided for its intersection with other theoretical and documentary references. The idea of ​​documentation was very important, as it already led me to the historian's idea of ​​the need to constitute series, whose regularity would allow more objective inferences when dealing with particular texts. For example, in the long run of the XNUMXth century, one of these typifying units of representations was the sharpness of the styles that today we call “baroque”, refuted in the documents of Jesuit education, the minutes of chambers, the Courts of Appeal, the etiquette of manners courtesans and other codes transplanted to the tropics. Was the sharpness artificial, affected, muddled, pedantic, “baroque”, “baroque”? Certainly, according to our Enlightenment and Romantic point of view.

But it was necessary to see it from the point of view of contemporaries, when it took on unsuspected use-values ​​for Enlightenment artists. The readings proposed by Prof. Castello allowed us to suspect that the sharpness of the styles had been, mainly between 1580 and 1750, two political dates, the beginning of the Iberian Union and the death of D. João V, which much later I would come to understand as a cultural model spread throughout the body of the Portuguese State, and not just of “top to bottom“, he already inferred, as a unidirectional sense of State domination for the governed, but rather as a generalized collective pattern, imitated, deformed, misrepresented, etc. in multiple appropriations.

When local adaptations were considered, the typifying units of the style or styles of that time determined as the XNUMXth century could be treated according to a double aim, which historicized them and, therefore, evidenced their contemporary value in uses that went far beyond the scope of letters. . On the one hand, the readings made it possible to consider the various use values ​​of local appropriations of doctrinal references, assuming that the metropolitan models were here deformed according to uses that gave them specificity and local functions.

On the other hand, by considering the diachronic line of successive appropriations, which repeated, assimilated or denied the same references, inventing local traditions with them or in spite of them, affirming and denying the supposed nativist and, from 1822, nationalist specificity of the place. He discovered that the establishment of homologies was basic, in short, to describe the formal unity of a work or a set of works. Or to theorize the structure of a style. Or to systematize and specify the variation of uses and use-values ​​of this structure and this form at a given time.

Often, the texts read seemed to me of little poetic and doctrinal value, in addition to being extremely tedious to record; but Prof. Castello insisted that they were basic to constituting a critical and interpretive system of colonial representations. Today, I think they were really very important as documentation, although evidently the interpretation given to them by Prof. Castello is as debatable as any other interpretation.

One of these texts, but this excellent one, was by Dom Domingos do Loreto Couto, Desagravos do Brasil e Glórias de Pernambuco, which I would only read long after having heard about him for the first time in one of the classes in 1975, I think. , when Prof. Castello delivered his impassioned eulogy, regretting having lost him, whether on loan he didn't know. When I met my wife, in 1978, one day I found, on one of the shelves at her house, a large, thick book, bound in red leather. It was Reparations from Brazil and Glories from Pernambuco. In pencil, on the title page, something like “Return to the Castle” was written. Marta then told me that it was the handwriting of her father, Laerte Ramos de Carvalho, who had died in 1972 and had been a very good friend of Prof. Castle. I remember that it did me a lot of good then to return the book to him, fulfilling the wish of a dead man I had never met.

One of the lessons I started to learn in Prof. Castello was that, in order to historically evaluate the Portuguese-Brazilian cultural production of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, it would be useful to establish series and classifications that temporarily set aside the established hierarchy of works, genres and authors in the canon of literary history. In the same vein as Daniel Roche's studies on the French literati of the XNUMXth century, which I would come to know much later, the establishment of what colonial society read and listened to, wrote or composed orally should initially replace the analysis of the great works bearing intellectual and aesthetic significance through a systematization that, instead of dealing with the great isolated abstract ideas, would try to reconstitute their occurrence in material and social environments where they had been able to circulate in multiple uses, often secondary or relegated to oblivion, but fundamental to the emergence of large works.

I remember writing to Prof. Castello a text about Antônio Vieira, in which he tried to relate the criticism of the cultured styles that the great Jesuit makes in Sermão da Sexagésima with the defense of the freedom of the Indians of Maranhão and of the Jewish capitals then refugees in Holland. In a still incipient way, I was guided by the idea of ​​establishing the homology of Vieira's interventions with various Luso-Brazilian practices, studying the representations of the Jesuit from the point of view of the specificity of the contemporary patterns or systems of his production and consumption, that is, according to the adaptations of a collective and anonymous Luso-Brazilian article.

When writing about the academies of the XNUMXth century, Prof. Castello proposes, as a historian who has the great merit of having saved their material from the foreseeable destruction and oblivion in the country, that they cannot be understood outside the context of the entire academic movement of the XNUMXth century, which in Portugal, we know, is dominated by the theological-political doctrine of the State and works as an extension of the Court characterized by ways of organizing memory and time very different from ours.

Its study should avoid isolating its material from its context of production in a merely aesthetic sense of disinterested enjoyment, which is anachronistic; also avoid disqualifying him beforehand as bad aesthetic quality, which is prejudiced. Such a study should take the form of a historical activity that I would later learn to define as an archeology, trying to account for the structure, function and value of representations in their time to avoid any ethnocentrism.

Evidently, all of this presupposed a patience and a sense of history that I slowly learned from the works of these intellectuals. And, above all, it presupposed a continuous self-irony, because, as a philosopher I admire said, what I was trying to do was placed, as it still is, between what I totally ignored and what I knew very little about.

*John Adolfo Hansen is a retired senior professor at USP. Author, among other books, of Sixteenth-century sharpnesses – Collected work, vol 1 (Edusp).

Lecture given on June 12, 1999 in homage to José Aderaldo Castello held at the Institute of Brazilian Studies of the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP). Published in the magazine plague, No. 8. São Paulo: Editora Hucitec, 1999, p. 69-74.


[1] PERKINS, David. Theoretical Issues in Literary History. Harvard: University Press, 1991

See this link for all articles