Forty years ago, literary critic Roberto Schwarz published Ao vencedor as batatas: Forma literária e processo social nos inícios do romance brasileiro (To the Victor, the Potatoes: Literary form and social process in early Brazilian novels) (Duas Cidades/Editora 34), in which he discusses the emergence of the novel in Brazil through a critical review of the works of José de Alencar (1829–1877) and Machado de Assis (1839–1908). In his book, Schwarz’s literary criticism converses constantly with social-science issues and points to how the disparity that existed between Brazil’s slave-based society and European liberalist ideas formed the backdrop for the birth of the novel as a literary form in the nineteenth century. He discusses how the dissonant manner in which European ideas were adopted in Brazil is evident in the works of Alencar and Machado, arguing that the novel was a foreign language through which writers’ desire for authenticity was manifested. “In its process of social reproduction, Brazil unceasingly applied and repurposed European ideas other than as intended. Those ideas thus became both a subject matter and a problem for literature”, Schwarz writes in one of the essays in his book.
The anniversary of what has come to be regarded as one of the most significant works in Brazilian literary criticism and social thought was the theme of a seminar organized by the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) in September. Professors and young researchers in the fields of languages and literature, philosophy, sociology, and political science met to discuss Schwarz’s work.
ALEXANDRE CAMANHOThe famous opening essay As ideias fora do lugar (Misplaced ideas) attempts to explain the dissonance by arguing that European bourgeois ideas, such as free labor and progress, as applied in late nineteenth-century Brazil, were off-centered from their use in Europe. Schwarz wrote this essay during his exile in Paris, where he took up residence in 1968—at the height of Brazilian military government repression—and from which he would only return in 1978.
Originally published in 1973 in Novos Estudos, a journal published by the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), the essay seeks to explain what the adoption of liberal ideology by Brazil’s ruling class in the nineteenth century truly meant. Schwarz adopts a Marxist concept of ideology and asserts that if liberal discourse already signified a veiling of reality in Europe, its meaning in Brazil was yet more complicated: after all, how could “freedom” and free labor relations be conceived of in a society organized around slavery? How could ideas developed in Europe operate in such disparate material and symbolic conditions as were Brazil’s? “In this context, ideologies did not describe reality—not even falsely—nor did they operate according to a law of their own, for which reason we shall call them “ideologies of the second degree,” writes Schwarz. In using the term “second degree,” the author expresses his view that European liberal ideology in the nineteenth century already masked its material reality and the reality of class relations. But ideologies of the second degree, rather than veiling and thus masking oppression, instead served as a direct justification for it.
A passage that the author thought it fit to emphasize in As ideias fora do lugar, underscoring the essence of his argument, reads as follows: “(…) adopting European ideas and motives could, and very often did, serve as a seemingly ‘objective’ justification for the unavoidable arbitrariness of favors.” This passage touches upon one of the central themes of the book: “favors”, a concept that cues Machado de Assis onto the scene and in which literary theory and sociology intersect. In Quincas Borba (1892), the main character, Rubião, inherits a huge estate and disposes of it for both sustenance and to distribute and negotiate real and imaginary favors. Rubião eventually loses all the money he inherited, and with it his sanity. However, he never ceases to repeat the maxim “to the victor, the potatoes,” albeit with increasing irony as the narrative progresses.
For Schwarz, Rubião’s character was an expression of the marks that slave labor leaves not only on relations between slave owners and slaves, but also in a free labor environment. Whereas in Europe the relations existing between free labor and the bourgeoisie seem to provide both parties a similar degree of freedom, the practice of favors on the periphery of capitalism (i.e. in Brazil and—as Schwarz suggests, but without dwelling long on the subject—in Latin America broadly) creates a labor environment in which workers are dependent on the powerful, who are seldom bourgeois in the European sense of the term, but landowners more broadly.
The essays that follow the opening essay in Schwarz’s book are each based on books in the first phase of Machado de Assis’s work: Ressurreição (Resurrection) (1872), A mão e a luva (The Hand and the Glove) (1874), Helena (1876) and Iaiá Garcia (1878). Favors are a central theme in these novels, which narrate stories of, or quests for, social ascension in a society that imposes barriers to those at the bottom. The title Ao vencedor as batatas (To the Victor, the Potatoes) was taken from a novel from the latter phase of Machado’s oeuvre, in which narrators and protagonists in Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas) (1881), Quincas Borba, Dom Casmurro (1899), Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob) (1904) and Memorial de Aires (The Wager: Aires’ Journal) (1908) adopt a dual discourse that is able, through circuitous and digressive means, to defend both free negotiation and slavery simultaneously. It is here that social form becomes literary form, not as a mirror, but as a new construction. Schwarz’s interpretation of what he termed the “Machadian turnaround” is set out in detail in other essays of his, particularly in the book Um mestre na periferia do capitalismo (A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism) (1990) and in the collection of articles Que horas são? (What time is it?) (1987), Sequências brasileiras (Brazilian Sequences) (1999), Duas meninas (Two Girls) (1997) and Martinha versus Lucrécia (2012).
Schwarz was born in Austria and studied social science at the University of São Paulo (USP) from 1957 to 1960. In 1958, he was among the youngest members of a seminar discussing Marx’s Capital, which brought together leading names on São Paulo’s academic scene across various fields, among them Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Fernando Novais, José Arthur Giannotti and Paul Singer. Schwarz later pursued a master’s degree in literary theory and comparative literature at Yale. Returning to Brazil, he became an assistant to Antonio Candido in the Department of Literary Theory at USP. He completed his PhD at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, in France. One of his aims in writing Ao vencedor as batatas was precisely to build on the historical process initiated by Candido in his book Formação da literatura brasileira: O estudo das relações entre forma literária e processo social nos inícios do romance brasileiro (The Formation of Brazilian Literature: A study of the relations between literary form and social process in early Brazilian novels), published in 1959. “That literature is part of society or that literature is known through society, and society through literature, are central postulates of the nineteenth century, without which the contemporary importance of literature cannot be understood,” Schwarz explained in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP in 2004 (see issue No. 98).
ALEXANDRE CAMANHO“By extending the discussion to include other of Schwarz’s books, the seminar organized at FFLCH revealed how, to the author, the art form provides an understanding of not-immediately-obvious contradictions in the forms of social experience, and how cultural production in Brazil is linked both to local and to global issues,” says FFLCH-USP professor of literary theory Salete de Almeida Cara.
Schwarz’s choices were the source of much controversy, including contentions that the author did more sociology than literary criticism. João Cezar de Castro Rocha, a professor of comparative literature at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), says this criticism is explained by the history of literary criticism as a graduate field of study in Brazil, in which two strains of thought have opposed each other in “strong binarism”. One has prioritized formal discussion and organized itself around the journal Noigandres and poets and critics Haroldo and Augusto de Campos. The other has emphasized discussions about how what is external to a writer’s work is expressed in literary form. “Ao vencedor as batatas is subtitled ‘Literary form and social process.’ I would draw attention to the ‘and’, and to the order of the terms; it is not ‘social process and literary form’, but ‘literary form and social process’,” notes Castro Rocha.
The UERJ researcher believes the book’s success is explained by Schwarz’s departure from the notion commonly held in the 1960s—when he first began planning his book—of Machado’s absenteeism; in other words, that he neglected to address the political and racial issues of his time. With Schwarz, Machado ceased to be “a Lucian of Samosata born in Morro do Livramento,” as he was described by critic Alfredo Pujol (1865–1930), referring to the satirist born in Syria about 120 AD.
Schwarz’s arguments created controversy not just in the field of literary theory. Bernardo Ricupero, a professor of political science at USP and one of the participants at the seminar celebrating the book’s 40th anniversary, noted in an article published in Lua Nova, titled “Da formação à forma. Ainda as ‘ideias fora do lugar’” (From formation to form. More on the “misplaced ideas”), that “one of the most attacked and misunderstood formulations of Brazilian cultural criticism is that of ‘misplaced ideas’.” Ricupero notes that philosopher Maria Sylvia Carvalho Franco, a retired professor at USP and author of Homens livres na sociedade escravocrata (Free Men in Slave Society) (1977), has maintained that because “the city centers and outskirts are part of the same mode of production, each favoring different moments in the formation and reproduction of capital,” it makes little sense to think of liberalism as a misplaced idea in Brazil the way Schwarz did.
Another important controversy arose between Schwarz and literary critic and historian Alfredo Bosi, author of Brás Cubas em três versões: Estudos machadianos (Brás Cubas in Three Versions: Studies of Machado) (2006). “Bosi asserts that different forms of liberalism existed throughout the nineteenth century in Brazil, precluding a uniform ideology from being attributed to Brazil’s dominant strata in that period. There were conflicting notions of liberalism, and this, according to Bosi, escaped Schwarz’s notice,” sociologist Flávio de Rosa Moura wrote in a 2011 article titled “Um crítico no redemoinho” (A critic in the whirlwind), published in the journal Tempo Social.
Schwarz often attempted to respond to his critics, such as on one occasion at a meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2009. “Well, of course it was never my intent to imply that ideas in Brazil were in the wrong place, nor that they were in the right place, nor yet that I could correct their placement—as the title suggested to many readers,” he wrote in an article titled “Por que ‘ideias fora do lugar’” (Why “misplaced ideas”), published in the book Martinha versus Lucrecia. “The problem dealt with in the essay—to which the title alluded with irony and Brechtian distancing—was a different one: it was a matter of clarifying the historical reasons why the new ideas and forms that were crucial in Brazil’s modernization nevertheless created an inescapable sense of strangeness and artificiality, even among their admirers and adherents.”
ALEXANDRE CAMANHOOrigin of the phrase “to the victor, the potatoes”
In the sixth chapter of Quincas Borba, Machado de Assis uses the teachings of the character after which the book is named to his friend, Rubião, to voice his own philosophical concepts
“Imagine a field of potatoes and two starving tribes. There are only enough potatoes to feed one of the tribes, who thereby will get the strength to cross the mountain and reach the other slope, where there are potatoes in abundance; but, if the two tribes peacefully divide up the potatoes from the field, they will not derive sufficient nourishment and will die of starvation. Peace, in this case, means destruction; war means preservation. One of the tribes exterminates the other and gathers the spoils. Hence the joy of victory, the hymns, the jubilation, the public rewards, and other effects of the exploits in war. Were such not the nature of war, no such demonstrations of exultation would occur for the real reason that man only celebrates and loves what is pleasurable or advantageous to him, and for the rational reason that no man canonizes an action that could virtually destroy him. To the vanquished, hate or compassion; to the victor, the potatoes.”Republish