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Modern by hook or by crook

Books show how elites implemented civilization in Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo

The old saying goes that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. But it is difficult to believe in this when we think of Brazil at the beginning of its post-monarchical phase, with Deodoros and Florianos (Generals involved in the overthrow of the monarchy), brandishing swords, stuffing down the country’s throat the modernity and civilization born of a leap with the Republic. The saying, though, gains a dose of truth when one reads Literatura como missão; tensões sociais e criação cultural na Primeira República [Literature as a mission: social tensions and cultural creation in the First Republic], by Nicolau Sevcenko, his thesis for a doctorate, written in the 1980 with the support of FAPESP, and now reissued by Companhia das Letras in a revised and expanded version.

A reading of the study, which shows how the elites brought to the ground buildings and ideals in Rio of the belle époque, wins as an ideal pendant the recently launched A capital da solidão [The capital of solitude] (Editora Objetiva, 560 pages), by Roberto Pompeu de Toledo, a history of São Paulo from its origins to 1900. The comparison lies in the differences: although with trajectories structured in such a diverse way, both the cities tried to insert modernity by hook or by crook, in an attempt to renege the past and suffocate what they had that was “uncivilized”: the mass of the people.

In the two metropolises, we saw the same desire for, as Sevcenko observes, “settling accounts with the past, conducting an urban reform headed up, as always, by the alliance between the economic elite and the technical-scientific elite, in which no remnant remained of the colonial times”. Each city dissected the phenomenon in its own fashion: São Paulo with the Week of 22 opted for celebrating a mythical prehistoric past, with its sights on the future, forgetful of the present, crippled by modernity; whereas Rio had the luck of being able to count on the “musketeers” of literature, idealist writers who had not swallowed the civilizational pill and believed in the power of the pen, according to Sevcenko’s analysis.

Euclides and Lima Barreto
Hence, the researcher’s thesis, centered on two critics, different from each other, but united against the all-powerful and “innovative” Republic: Euclides da Cunha and Lima Barreto. “The two were intellectual heirs of the ‘1870 generation’, the platform of which proposed national modernization, but by the elimination of the great hindrances: slavery, political domination by a small group of large landowners, and a centralist regime, autocratic and out of step with the recent scientific transformations. For them, this would help to create a democratic, balanced, modern and just society in Brazil”, says Sevcenko.

Everything that the nascent Republic seemed to promise. “They had the conviction, though, that in several aspects, the conservative and archaic society of the Empire seemed to be more advanced than the arbitrary, brutal, repressive and reactionary regime, paradoxically implanted by republicanism”, the researcher goes on. Euclides and Lima Barreto distrusted the “hasty reformers” of the new regime, actually a class of social climbers who brought with them discriminatory and antisocial inclinations. In the midst of a sea of praises, the two had the boldness to be a dissonant voice and to make of literature not just an art, but also an instrument of change, molded by the new times, and which ought, in turn, mold these times.

“During the whole of the 19th century and up until the First World War, literature represented the main arena for public opinion in the capitalist societies of the West. In the case of Brazil, with an overwhelming majority of illiterates, public opinion and the decision-making circles affected were concentrated in a minority, inside which, however, the role of intellectuals and writers was of recognized importance”, Sevcenko explains. “On few occasions had literary creation been so bound up with the very epidermis of history tout court.”

They were divided, though, on their visions of what was best for the country. “For Euclides, it was a question of redistributing the income generated by the coffee sector, transferring it to foster the economy in the hinterland of the country. For Lima, on the contrary, the coffee sector had to be discouraged and deactivated, being maintained artificially at the cost of the social and economic loss of the whole country”, the professor observes. Euclides preferred foreign capital and immigrants, while Lima advocated national funds and labor.Be that as it may, unlike the majority of their colleagues in literature, they identified themselves with the strata marginalized by force. “This was despite their being squeezed between the masses and the elite.

They regarded the government from the perspective of the man on the street or in the field, at the same time that they looked on this man as a target for political and social reform projects. Living like patients, they reflected like agents”, Sevcenko notes. Literature becomes a mission. “These two sets of texts make it possible to descry literary production, in itself, as a process homologous to the historical process, following, confronting or denying it, although always referring to it in its own range of conduct. Literature appears as an institution, in the sense that society itself is an institution, to the extent that it implies a community involved in relationships of production and consumption”, is the author’s analysis.

The “musketeer” Machado
In this way, according to Sevcenko, the poet has a more complex mission than the scientist, the technician, or the ruler, since “through his works, he stands up for ways and concrete means for the remission of the simple man, debased in his humanity” by the new progress imposed that denies them existence and inclusion. In the new edition of his book, the researcher has added a delicious postface that included an unprecedented “musketeer”: Machado de Assis, whose work is analyzed from a tale, Evolução [Evolution]. In it, Benedito, a coffee farmer, finds himself on a train, with Inácio, a businessman and an engineer, who proclaims to him: “Brazil is like a child that is crawling and will only begin to walk when there are many railroads”. Benedito is enchanted with Inácio’s phrase, and, at the end of the tale, reaches the end delighted with his idea. The old, smart, elite, as can be seen from Benedito, knows that “the alternative proposed by Inácio (the country’s new elite, technocratic and republican) would make it possible to draw up again the social and economic order, in favor of the continuity of its privileges”.Or, in the words of the nephew of the protagonist of The Leopard, by Lampedusa: “Everything must change, to carry on being the same”.

“Machado, unlike the younger writers who wanted to attack the literary conventions, knew how to operate at his ease inside them, corroding them from within, with his reflective and self-conscious writing. It was enough to be suspicious of the dominant values”. Or, as he himself used to say: “Everything, my friends, but being made a fool of”, says Sevcenko. According to the researcher, the wizard of Cosme Velho distrusted just as much the old landowners as the new scientific elites, going further than his “musketeer” colleagues Euclides and Lima. “For him, the heralds of progress were becoming the executioners in a society undergoing change. By means of a spurious symbiosis with the dominant strata, the agents of ‘order’, this enlightened elite blocked the alternatives of democratic projects or social advancement.”

Not without reason, it was the Old Republic, the first government, as Carlos Lessa notes in his O Rio de todos os Brasis [The Rio of all the Brazils] (Editora Record, 496 pages), that took care of the “beautifying” of Rio, with the “Pull it Down” mayor Pereira Passos. “But the constructive fury of the great urban reform of Rio was to denote the practices of spatial segregation, ethnic discrimination, and social exclusion, typical of the Regeneration. The Pull it Down there gave rise to an eclectic and art nouveau scenario, rigorously modeled on the urbanism of the major European capitals”, says Sevcenko. It was the Rio of progress, of the “modern Brazilians with their heads held high” in the eyes of the foreign visitors, the living image of “evolution”. São Paulo, a few years later, was to do the same to its looks, by the hand of architect Ramos de Azevedo, in an attempt to hide the archaic and slow past of the “capital of solitude”, Pompeu de Toledo notes.

Both cities, in the beginning, shared the lack of interest of the colonizers in their physical space. In São Paulo, the difficult path of going up to the plateau was chosen, where the Indians had established themselves a long time ago and, with them, a Portuguese, João Ramalho (in a way, an odd “father of the citizens of São Paulo”). Up there on top, Martim Afonso de Souza was thinking of establishing, after São Vicente, an advanced post for penetrating into the hinterland, in search of the riches of silver. São Paulo was to end up owing its existence to a purist priest who stammered, Manoel da Nóbrega. “He had in mind an immense utopia. He wanted to bring a whole new world to the kingdom of God and of the Church. To wrest it from original sin, to convince it of what he regarded as ‘the truth'”, Toledo observes. He fell head over heels for the post at the top of the scarp, far enough from the “perdition” of São Vicente and the Europeans. There, he could work on the Indians in peace and found “a theocratic nation”. He began as he wished: creating a school, inaugurated, in January 1995, where the “immaculate world” was to arise. He was able to count on the help of a 19 year old novice priest, José de Anchieta, whose poorly physical constitution led him to the “good airs” of Brazil. “In the village between the rivers Tamanduateí and the Anhangabaú, located on the edge of the unknown backlands and frequently besieged by hordes of Indians, the keynotes were poverty and isolation”, Toledo says. There was a lack of everything: a jail for locking up criminals, decent buildings, and even beds.

Its isolation brought to the spirit of its inhabitants a horror of interference from the authorities of the kingdom, a “virtual rebelliousness of the far-away settlement of the plateau”. Nor did the expeditionary bands, with their quest for indigenous slave labor, help to give the São Paulo character any docility or extroversion. “The roving caudillo at the head of a band was also a sedentary caudillo, in the intervals between travels”, Toledo notes. The Indians captured by these armies led by people from São Paulo, but made up of Indians, served as a workforce for the incipient village to be able to trade agricultural products with the richer centers of the coast. The village, incidentally, was a center that did not serve as such, since its inhabitants preferred to isolate themselves in a necklace of smallholdings, homesteads and farms that, all in all, were being set up in 17th century. “The people of São Paulo are soulless and rebellious folks, who pay no heed to the laws of the King, nor to the laws of God. It’s to and fro, bringing and selling Indians”, noted an observer of the time about the bad reputation of the dwellers of the village.

Unlike Rio, with its Blacks in all four corners, São Paulo lived with Indians, ate like them, and even lived in hammocks. The broad geography of the plateau itself made it possible for one to live in isolation amongst one’s peers. Whereas the narrowness of the coastal strip where Rio is created districts that line up with the rocks like a pearl necklace: each one of them contains a microcosm that brings together rich and poor, forced to live together as best as possible. From early on, São Paulo permitted isolation and stratification: at the beginning of the 20th century, for example, to escape from the precarious conditions of hygiene of the center, the rich were able to go up to Campos Elíseos, to Higienópolis and to the plateau, where the Paulista Avenue was built. Each one in his own place, isolated from the others.

But these are other times. Up until the 18th century, even with São Paulo discovering the veins of gold in Minas Gerais, the keynote of the city on the plateau was lethargy, worsened with the mass exit of its inhabitants in search of wealth in the hinterland. “In the course of time, the city fulfilled its destiny of, in populating Brazil, planting hamlets along and at the end of the paths over which its inhabitants ventured, depopulating itself”, Pompeu de Toledo explains. A detail: the women who stayed in the city, according to an English traveler, “were anemic and very serious”. Whereas the men, noted Saint-Hilaire, received the French observer “with a rudeness that seems to be all over São Paulo a natural characteristic of the men from the lower classes”. But, the traveler goes on, “the location of the city is enchanting and the air one breathes there very pure”. He was even prophetic: the day that Brazil started to industrialize itself, it would be in São Paulo that the process would start, he observed in 1819, at the same time as he commented on the bull ring that the city had and which much impressed him.

A notable forecast, given the state of uncivilization of the city in the early 19th century, when Rio was seething with novelties and culture. It was the students who changed, for the first time, the course of things. In 1827, São Paulo won the privilege of housing a Law Academy. “It was this academy, however modest it might have been, that came to revitalize its economy and to bring some movement to the streets. São Paulo, somewhat without a vocation, since its role as starting point for the expeditions to conquer the backlands became obsolete, and gained a new prerogative, and, as a consequence, a new personality”, Toledo observes.

It was not easy to win the institution, since many people criticized the way the people of São Paulo spoke: “If there are dialects in the provinces with their defects, it is recognized that the dialect of São Paulo is the most notable. Accordingly, the youth of Brazil, doing their studies there, would pick up a very disagreeable pronunciation”, wrote the Viscount of Cairu. The students arrived from all parts of the country, and the families of São Paulo, startled, would hide themselves even more, locked in their houses. “The pavements of hell are a thousand times better than those of São Paulo, and there is no place where the women are more virgin than there”, complained a student, Álvares de Azevedo.

“The city was always being pulled back, by the powerful magnet of backwardness”, says the author. But then came coffee. To start with, in the Paraíba Valley, which was no help at all in turning the situation around. Later, though, São Paulo came to receive the benefits of progress. In 1865, the train arrived, or rather, the train crash did, because the first journey that was to arrive at the Luz station ended in derailment. “São Paulo, the province, was linking itself together as a whole: economically, around coffee, physically, alongside the tracks of the railroads, and politically, by common interests that were to multiply the influence of its elite in the Empire”, Toledo reckons. Little centered on Negro slave manpower, it did not suffer so much with Abolition, at least economically. São Paulo preferred to be the city of the foreigners. Let it not be thought that this was a sign of progress and justice: the people of São Paulo used the immigrants not as new settlers (look at the American model, for example), but as a replacement for the slaves.

Old and new elites
The Republic may have happened in Rio, but it was plotted in São Paulo and met, above all, the interests of São Paulo, Toledo observes. What was intended was not a modern country, but the federalism that would give unto the province what was the province’s: privileges. The São Paulo elite, after taking the economic power, saw that it needed political power. The architect Ramos de Azevedo was the Phidias of the new and prosperous Athens. “Ramos de Azevedo, with his monumental buildings, donated to the city a brand new antiquity. After coffee, the railroad, the factories and the republican regime, he was the cherry on the cake with which the São Paulo elite commemorated its victory”, as Pompeu de Toledo sums it up.

We are back at the beginning: at this moment, Rio and São Paulo were destroying their “ugly” past, following the alliance between the old elites and the new ones, technical and scientific. While, in 1922, São Paulo played with its anthropophagic and mythological past, in Rio, they were pulling down Castle Hill, where large poor Black and half-breed populations used to live. Modernism, in São Paulo and Rio, was the decisive landmark for the strategies for forgetting the reneged times. All these antagonistic forces were to come together in the Revolution of 1930, “one more acute historical crisis resolved by the reencounter of order with progress”, Sevcenko observes. Now there was no more time for “musketeers”. The old man’s portrait was on the wall. In Rio and in São Paulo. The pen no longer stood a chance against the sword.