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Brazil, French style

The Brazilian years (1930 to 1940) of French historian Fernand Braudel marked his life and work

Dissemination EduspThe young Braudel in a picture taken during his stay in BrazilDissemination Edusp

“For someone who saw himself caught between conventional historiography, the Marxist Vulgate and sociologism, Braudel was a true liberation. At long last, here was an historian that neither had the staleness of the first, the reductionism of the second or the doctrinairism of the third; and who, equipped with the tools of more recent erudition, was capable, like the great nineteenth century historians, of providing major segments of the past with body, soul and life”, wrote Evaldo Cabral de Mello, the historian from the state of Pernambuco. The praise gives one an idea of the enchantment that generations experienced five decades ago as they read The Mediterranean, the monumental work of Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), and the weight of the French historian’s influence. What few people know is that his thinking, including the creation of his magnum opus, was born during his stay in Brazil in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This tropical period of Braudel is the subject matter of the study of historian Luis Corrêa Lima, born in São Paulo but established in Rio de Janeiro, from PUC-RJ, the author of Fernand Braudel e o Brasil – Vivência and brasilianismo (1935-1945) [Fernand Braudel and Brazil – Experience and Brazilianism (1935-1945)], newly released by Edusp and the result of Lima’s PhD thesis at University of Brasilia (UnB), in which he analyses the impact of the country on the French intellectual and vice-versa.

“For him, it proved to be a change in viewpoint. After his contact with Brazilian society and its history, Braudel managed to imagine Europe in the ancient régime“, explains the researcher. “Furthermore, he was very important for Brazil and for USP, as he helped to educate an entire second generation of professors at that university”. The adoptive country and the young man came together to create The Mediterranean and to lay the roots of a new way of making history. “If new readers fail to clearly perceive the novelty of the work in its time, this might be due, in a way, to the fact that Braudel himself influenced successive generations, which embraced the Annales School to which he belonged. A school that renewed historiography, bringing it closer to the social sciences, and causing new themes and horizons to arise. At that time, it was an uncommon type of narrative”.

When he began his doctorate, the timeframe that Corrêa Lima chose was precisely Braudel’s Brazilian years, which would prove to be decisive for his entire oeuvre. It was at this time, for instance, that he developed part of the aforementioned The Mediterranean. Corrêa Lima’s thesis investigates everything from the arrival of the French missions that helped to set up USP in the 1930’s until the period immediately following Braudel’s return to France, when he spent five years in a Nazi prison. “France was regarded as the leader of the Latin nature and its culture, the safe way toward modernity and true progress. It simultaneously offered technology and a humanistic culture, laity and religion. That is why there was a general belief that France might save us from the ‘barbarism’ of a merely industrial civilization. Ideological conflicts at that time were fairly strong and the French presence corresponded to the project of the São Paulo state elite of educating its youth along democratic ideals, far removed from fascism”, explains Corrêa Lima.

The difficulties of this undertaking included not only the vastness of the works of Braudel that had to be read. Just as an example, merely two of his main books amount to five volumes and more than three thousand pages. The second difficulty, according to Corrêa Lima, concerned the specific issue he wanted to research: Braudel and Brazil. “Would there be enough material to write a thesis on it? Or would the subject run out in just one chapter or a bit more?”, he kept asking himself. This doubt caused him great anguish for quite some time. The third difficulty was gaining access to Braudel’s archives in France. “It was a long wait until the doors were opened”, he tells us. The encouraging occurrences, however, included locating unpublished documents kept by the historian’s widow, who was 87 at the time, in her Paris apartment. As a result, the work of Corrêa Lima focuses especially on the years that are hardly discussed in the author’s main biographies, one by Pierre Daix, from France, and the other by Giuliana Gemelli, from Italy.

Discreet, a tireless researcher and considered an excellent professor, Fernand Braudel began his career as a historian in the late 1920’s. In the two subsequent decades he would live outside France. First, he travelled to Algeria, where the sea gave rise to his first major inspiration. He came to Brazil, however, through an accident of fate: the suicide of a full professor that had been appointed to the position. He brought so much research material with him that upon arriving in São Paulo he had to rent a second hotel room.

Braudel used to say that “he had become intelligent” after becoming acquainted with Brazil. To understand this statement one must, first, be aware of the element that characterizes his work: as Corrêa Lima highlights, it is the extended search, involving permanences and the lasting realities of historical processes, both as regards the relations of human beings with their milieu and the forms of collective life and civilizations. In Brazil, he found a new country of continental dimensions, tropical nature, and a society that was still being formed, as opposed to that of the Old Continent, which, however, led him to imagine Europe’s distant past. “It was in Brazil that he embraced the historiographical renovation recommended by the Annales, with a set of intuitions that configured his Mediterranean and that turned him into a great historian, at one and the same time original and the heir of Lucien Febvre”, argues Corrêa Lima.

Roger Viollet/AFPFernand Braudel in 1980: in Brazil, he was in contact with intellectuals, he trained historians and to this day he fosters research and ideasRoger Viollet/AFP

While in Brazil, from 1935 to 1937, Braudel was working on his PhD thesis on the Mediterranean during the time of Philip II. The work kept him busy for about 20 years. The French university also required that he prepare a secondary thesis, in which the material researched in the main study could be re-used. Therefore, he chose to study sixteenth century Brazil, which actually was part of the kingdom of Philip II when the two Iberian crowns merged.

In Braudel’s historiography, as Corrêa Lima explains, certain collective or inanimate realities function coherently as if they were a subject: they become “personages”. This is the case, for instance, of the Mediterranean sea, which turns into a character in his history of Europe, and also of Brazil’s immenseness and its geographic factors, which are indispensable for one to understand its history. “Braudel chose a clearly defined point of view when focusing on Brazil: an American Europe, i.e., a European civilization in the Americas. And, in a way, the only tropical and subtropical Europe of a certain magnitude in the entire world”, states the Brazilian historian.

This point of view caused Braudel to cast another glance over the Brazilian past and thus to capture the interactions of the country with the ocean. However, Braudel did give way in part to an unacceptable ethnocentrism, says Corrêa Lima. “Still, he had the humility and the greatness to acknowledge that Brazilian history, like all history, is life, and did not allow himself to be imprisoned by a formula”, he adds.

After World War II, upon completing his thesis, Fernand Braudel was allowed to replace his secondary thesis by two published articles on the Spaniards in North Africa. And so it was that his work on sixteenth century Brazil remained unfinished. Little by little, his research interests turned toward Latin America as a whole and later to the world history of material life and capitalism. Thus, he never resumed his unfinished work on Brazil. Braudel felt that in order to complete this, he would have had to consult the archives of Portugal and at the time these were not organized.

During his Brazilian period, Braudel lived with intellectuals, trained historians and to this day gives rise to new interpretations and research. He kept up his correspondence with three major friends: the USP professors João Cruz Costa and Eurípedes Simões de Paula and the journalist Júlio de Mesquita Filho. Among his female disciples, Alice Canabrava, Cecília Westphalen and Maria Luíza Marcílio stand out. During the military regime, he attempted to free his friends and acquaintances from prison. Braudel used his international prestige as a French intellectual and wrote to the Brazilian military rulers. Thus, as Corrêa Lima tells us, he managed to get Caio Prado Jr., Milton Santos, João Cruz Costa and Yedda Linhares out of jail. To his students and future professors, he recommended simplicity, which resulted in clarity.

After returning to France, Braudel was one of the individuals responsible for disseminating the work of Gilberto Freyre. He contributed to the work of researchers such as Katia de Queiros Mattoso, the Greek-Bahian historian, who would come to occupy for the first time the chair of Brazilian history at the Sorbonne, and the ethno-photographer Pierre Verger, who dedicated to the historian his thesis Flux et reflux [Flux and reflux] and was strongly encouraged by Braudel to return to academia (Verger had abandoned school while still a teenager). With his French peers, Braudel formed a generation of great historians: Jacques Le Goff, Le Roy Ladurie, Marc Ferro and Georges Dubys. Up until the 1950’s, he was responsible for courses and conferences on Latin America. When USP reached its 50th anniversary, he was invited to take part in the celebrations. As his main Brazilian friends were dead by then, he said it would be too distressing to return to Brazil and be unable to meet them.

In the last few years, studies about the French intellectuals who lived in Brazil at that time have multiplied. Not only is their influence in Brazil  studied, but also Brazil?s influence on their work. Authors such as Lévi-Strauss, Roger Bastide and Pierre Verger have been the subject matter of academic research, republishing, and often first editions. “As for Braudel, I believe that there is a trend toward the growth of critical studies about him, as the history of historiography and the theory of history are fields that are becoming consolidated in Brazil. However, they were far from strong in the 1990’s, when I was an undergraduate student. One should highlight that there is a more thoughtful resumption, a little different from the old source of inspiration for new ‘methods’ and ‘approaches'”, explains Henrique Estrada Rodrigues, a professor from the Federal University of Ouro Preto and the author of a recent article on the dialogue between Braudel and Lévi-Strauss.

The author of a doctoral thesis on Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Estrada Rodrigues says that the present day view of French influence in Brazil is changing. “Increasingly, there are other important intellectual references, such as the German or the English ones, which make the importance of French influence more relative, without, of course, depriving it of its merit. This is also the result of the increasing specialization of the postgraduate programs, which began unearthing very specific things. For instance: the association between Sérgio Buarque and French history, strongly disseminated in the 1990’s, is beginning to coexist with studies that point out sources of inspiration that are quite different, not to say opposite, such as German sociology, the historian’s Italian readings, or the references drawn from literary history”, he exemplifies.

Corrêa Lima states that, given the wide-ranging nature of Braudel’s work – the Mediterranean world, material culture, the early centuries of capitalism, France – there is much that is yet to be studied. Furthermore, today, when we are interested in other subjects, such as the history of the Church and sexual diversity, Braudel’s contribution continues to be quite valuable. “He teaches one to identify what is permanent and changes in collective life and in civilizations, and to pursue ‘concubinage’ among the various fields of knowledge. The historical perspective is highly useful when it comes to facing intransigent attitudes and to recognizing novelty that is on the way”, he states.

In a review of Corrêa Lima’s book published by the magazine Carta Capital, the historian Elias Thomé Saliba, a professor at USP, praised the highly flavored stories that were brought together, the meticulous research and the good fortune of documenting how the “distancing” experienced in Brazil became a rite of passage in Braudel’s development. A “distancing” that resulted from the contact with another reality, different from his own. Absorbed by his research that centered on a different time, Corrêa Lima states that he too experienced something similar. One day, after talking for several hours with Braudel’s widow, he felt odd upon reaching the street, on a normal spring day, with youngsters, children and elderly people coming and going on the sidewalks. “There was nothing special. However, I got the feeling that I was coming from another planet, from a world that was totally unrelated to what my eyes were observing. I had never experienced such a sensation before. What happened to me was that I was so absorbed in a past that was distant in terms of time and space that the present made me feel extraordinarily odd. It was as if I were returning from an episode of enrapture”, he recalls. “Of course, all of this is the recreation of the historian based on the available vestiges. However believe me: history has the force and the power to transport us into distant worlds, even if only through one’s imagination.”