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Brazil’s centenary roots

Starting this month, seminars, debates, and exhibitions mark the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda

disseminationThe researcher in his library: impressive education that did not fit in with Brazil’s intellectual atmosphere in his timedissemination

Historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, whose centenary is celebrated in July, was one of the intellectuals most engaged in the task of understanding Brazil, its dilemmas and its identity. He was a multidisciplinary thinker long before being versatile was valued. Besides history, he was at ease in such domains as sociology, anthropology, psychology, ethnology and literary criticism. “His education was impressive, it almost did not fit the Brazilian cultural atmosphere in the early decades of the 20th century”, says Antonio Arnoni Prado, a professor of literary theory at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).

Erudite, averse to pedantry, the historian always took up political positions committed to the popular conception of Democracy: he took part in the creation of the Democratic Left, in 1945 – which was transformed into the Brazilian Socialist Party two years later -, opposed military regime established in 1964, and was one of the founders of the Workers’ Party (PT), in 1980. He left the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1969, in solidarity with the teaching staff removed from office by the AI-5 (Decree in the military regime which gave extensive dictatorial powers to the military rulers).

Since his first writings, still in the 20’s, Sérgio Buarque was a pioneer in the link between material culture and the representations of the spirits, which was later to be formalized by the École des Annales. “For him, literature was converging with history, an aspect that was to appear occasionally in his theoretical reflections on historical and literary sequences. Sérgio saw the past as a living thing. Just as literature does not evolve like science – after all, Cervantes is just as updated as Joyce -, the facts of the past are not embalmed”, explains Arnoni. What interested him was to know at what moment the writer – from his angle -, pure imagination – and the historian – with his perspective based on documentation and research – seek this live sequence, this permanence of the facts, shining on what is more expressive in its context, but which transcends this context, illuminating the past, the present, and fiction.

“It is, then, up to the writer to converge on the historian, who has the role of interpreting his time, of anticipating it”, he comments. “But there is a personal figuration in the comprehension of this time, which presupposes in the historian a little of the intuition of the critic and of the fictionist, in having the ability to interrogate the facts from his own latent qualities, which it up to him to discern”. According to Arnoni, if this happens, the work stands up on its own feet. This is something that is very subtle and very modern, since it is on the tip of all the pens today.

Sérgio Buarque was the first critic of Modernism and its impasses, the first to deal theoretically with the poetry of Manuel Bandeira, the prose of Oswald de Andrade, and the almost anthropological role of the imaginative vein of Mário de Andrade. When he realized that Modernism was splitting into two currents – one progressive, led by Oswald – and the other more an accomplice of the past and of rhetoric, like Plínio Salgado, Menotti Del Picchia and Cassiano Ricardo -, he broke with the movement. He traveled to Europe, where he lived for several years. “He came back from there with the Roots of Brazil project (1936), an answer to what he expected of Modernism: understanding Brazil, getting the country into step with its time. The book is a settling of accounts with the conservative wing of Modernism, which lent some of its literary myths for the formation of the National State of Integralism (The fascist movement in Brazil)”, he explains.

Roots does a diagnosis of Brazil, points out the adversaries to be combated. It criticizes the personalist culture, the sense of predatory colonization, the way the elite acts, the place of literature – a mere appendix to graduate life – and doing so picks up again ideas already present in fundamental texts of the modernist movement, more esthetically and politically engaged, such as the Manifest of Brazilwood Poetry (1924) and the Anthropophagous Manifest (1928), by Oswald de Andrade. A study on the Brazilian soul,Roots provides the elements for a reflection about the national identity, a theme that is still relevant today, in a world in full transformation.

The book is one of the works that caused most impact in its time, along with Casa Grande&Senzala [The Masters and the Slaves] (1933), by Gilberto Freyre, and Formação do Brasil Contemporâneo [Formation of Contemporary Brazil] (1942), by Caio Prado Junior. “These three books broke up a generation, they put in discussion a few categories that synthesized the deep mistakes that the previous historiography had committed”, Professor Arnoni explains. “Sérgio Buarque goes deeper than Gilberto Freyre, who looked at the slave quarters from the point of view of the big house.

“Sérgio turned this inside out, since, when he spoke of the poor, of the half-breeds, he did so criticizing the oligarchy”, explains Richard Graham, a disciple of the historian and a retired professor of History, at the University of Texas, in the United States. “Roots lies between history and literature: it is a literary essay. The question of cordiality, a vision of our externality, is a concept of civilization that covers literature, pranks, humor and leisure”, says Antonio Arnoni. The notion of the cordial man was misinterpreted by some intellectual circles and caused polemics at the time. The category is complex and shows a certain fluidity, as in the conception of Sérgio Buarque there is a double movement around it, of adhesion and repulsion.

The vision of cordiality as kindness, receptivity to the other and lightness in interpersonal relations configures a singular generosity. These are the more external aspects of the concept, the more “positive” ones. The central aspect of the category concerns the diagnosis of the interference between the public and private spheres of Brazilian social life. Starting with the weak distinction between these two instances, the historian analyzes social relations in a general way.

In Brazilian society, the State works as an extension of the family, the domestic environment. Public men are formed in this web of relations, in which personal, sentimental ties, and those of patronage, take the forefront. Here, cordial does not mean affable, but refers to the heart, designating the affections as the mediators of relations. This affective and voluntarist sociability is present in all the levels of social life. The confusion between public and private has a repercussion on the stability of the institutions, makes it difficult to strengthen democracy and citizenship.

Antonio Arnoni Prado recalls that the concept is also useful to throw light on the social relations in the cultural field, explaining the role of the academies, the fruition of intellectual leisure, besides contributing in the in-depth analyses of the work of outcast poets like Lima Barreto and Oswald de Andrade. “Sérgio saw in the artists who are outside this paternalist ambit of relations the possibility of another kind of literature”, he says.

According to Arnoni, this category went into the very vision that he had of the literary system, which remits one more to the organization of historical and esthetic sequences than to the isolationism of the literary system, dear to certain currents of criticism, disconnecting them from their context. Furthermore, the category goes into the merits of literary criticism: the value of the work does not come from its reception, nor from the writer’s group of friends, but from the themes. “It distinguishes original, fertile, critical themes from the themes more accepted by groups with a preconceived reception, which anticipate success or guarantee the circulation of a book.”

For Unicamp’s professor, Roots is a kind of symbolic figuration of all the other roots of the work of Sérgio Buarque, to which it gives an organic nature. The book recovers and organizes articles of literary criticism published before. “If there had not been this Roots , this material would not have its organic nature and it would not have projected the fantastic intuition of Vision of Paradise (1959), a book only comparable with productions of high European historiography”, he comments. Original and extremely erudite, Vision only began to have an impact on Brazilian historiography in the mid-Eighties.

Pure man
“The book examines how the settler understood nature and the possibilities of the world where he was. In the early years, the Eden motif was very much present: man was pure and the earth bountiful”, explains Richard Graham. But the paradisiacal conception soon lost force. “This perspective is contrasted with the vision of Brazil that the European who had never left his continent had. To do so, Sérgio had to place himself in this second point of view, very complex, since it presupposed the colonizer’s culture and vision of the world. Written as a professorial thesis for the University of São Paulo (USP), Vision in a way continues the Roots program, focusing on the domination of the elites, based on the economic exploitation of the subaltern social groups.

Another seminal work is the colossal General History of Brazilian Civilization , coordinated by Sérgio Buarque. “Its 11 volumes are obligatory reading in postgraduate courses on the history of Brazil all over the world”, says Graham. “Sérgio’s vision is present throughout the work, which focuses the historical evolution of Brazil, giving precedence to the study of the conflicts that molded it. Without any doubt, he is the Brazilian historian who has most repercussion abroad”.

The centenary of the birth of Sérgio Buarque, on July 11th, will be commemorated with a few events about the historian’s life and work. From April 16th to 18th, the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center is organizing a seminar. And during the month, USP’s History Department, the Historical Demographic Center of Latin America, the Institute of Brazilian Studies, the São Paulo Museum and Unicamp’ Memory Center are calling people who have been familiar with the historian to record statements that will be part of a videotape about him.