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Jacó Guinsburg

Jacó Guinsburg: The editor of academia

Léo RamosDisplaying the same insightful humor that delights the readers of his short stories and plays in Yiddish – one of his many specialties – Jacó Guinsburg, who at 92 remains at the helm of the Editora Perspectiva publishing house, defines his life as “a patchy, contradictory sequence of experiences and pursuits,” which, he says, were byproducts of the very flow of existence “more than of the schools that I barely attended and the diplomas I didn’t earn.” This is an odd observation indeed, coming from one of Brazil’s great theater critics, who taught at the School of Dramatic Arts (EAD) when it was under the direction of Alfredo Mesquita and later joined the University of São Paulo’s School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP).

As an editor, Guinsburg was also responsible for introducing Brazil to such names as Umberto Eco, Erich Auerbach, Bashevis Singer, and many others. The Perspectiva catalogue features Lourival Gomes Machado, Mário Pedrosa, Antonio Candido, Décio Pignatari, and Décio de Almeida Prado, and the house was one of the publishers of the Brazilian Concretists, most notably Haroldo de Campos. Guinsburg is the son of Jewish immigrants and an immigrant himself, having come to Brazil from Bessarabia, in Eastern Europe, at the age of three. As a poor kid in the Jewish neighborhood of Bom Retiro, in São Paulo, he drove his parents to distraction, forever mixed up in leftist politics and neighborhood fist fights, while his nose was perpetually stuck in a book. As he himself admits, his restless spirit kept him from finding his place in life until he was twenty-something.

In 1947, together with Edgard and Carlos Ortiz as well as some friends, Guinsburg founded Rampa publishing house, which was a combination of scant money, intellectual pursuit, and, ultimately, business failure. But it was a preparation for the future. He sold books door-to-door and translated numerous texts, sometimes writing fiction in his spare time – a fine habit he still maintains, much to the delight of some critics. In 1954, at the invitation of Jean-Paul Monteil, he started working at the newly created publishing house Difusão Europeia do Livro, known as Difel, where he had the privilege of editing such classic series and titles as the Garnier Collection; the series Saber Atual (Current knowledge); Maurice Crouzet’s book História Geral da Civilização (General history of civilization); História Geral da Civilização Brasileira (General history of Brazilian civilization), edited by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda; and A Presença da Literatura Brasileira (The presence of Brazilian literature), by Antonio Candido and José Aderaldo Castelo.

At the invitation of Décio de Almeida Prado, Guinsburg, who is self-taught, began contributing to the Literary Supplement of the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, where he came to know the theater critic Sábato Magaldi. He spent 1962 to 1963 in France on a fellowship, specializing in editing and also taking classes in philosophy at the Collège de France. In 1964, he was invited to lecture at Alfredo Mesquita’s School of Dramatic Arts and later, in 1967, at ECA-USP. “I had never in my life dreamed of being a teacher, not least of all because I spent a good part of my life hating school as an institution,” he recalls. In 1965, he founded Editora Perspectiva, where he publishes vanguard books, along with the essential bibliography in the field of the humanities. Perspectiva is especially well known for its series Debates, flagship of the house. Guinsburg, who has a son and daughter with his wife Gita, to whom he has been married for over 50 years, spoke to Pesquisa FAPESP.

What’s your relationship with books like?
I don’t know how to define it. It’s not only about a love of books. There’s a bit of that, but it isn’t just that. It is a relationship that took shape in the course of my reading and work. At this point in my life, I couldn’t name any other thing to which I have related and devoted time in the same continuous fashion. I don’t say this to boast about any trait of mine. I think someone who spends his time tending a garden is a born gardener, if we want to look at things retrospectively, even though he might have learned gardening at the end of his life. So I wouldn’t know how to define my connection to books. I do not, however, see books as representing the sole meaning of existence and culture. Culture goes beyond books. Books are a means, an instrument. They create a universe through which man yields to himself. Not just for him but for what he projects of himself, which is the world of culture, humanity, and society.

Age: 92
Theater and literature
Doctorate from the University of São Paulo School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP)
University of São Paulo (USP)
Editora Perspectiva
Scientific production:
Author of 11 books, including essays on literature and theater, as well as short stories

How do you see culture and knowledge? What is their purpose?
It is hard to say what their purpose is. They have a practical side, positive and lofty, and sometimes a detrimental side as well. Nothing in man’s life comes clothed solely in angelic vestments; the devil was also born from an angel. Culture depends upon how we define it. If we separate culture from civilization, all peoples – even the most primitive – have culture, because man’s condition is cultural. And so is everything that followed, up through Einstein’s theory of relativity, starting from the spark that man ignited when he rubbed two stones together. The evolution of this process of possession – which I would not call “developmentalist” – has displayed a slow, and often extremely cruel, pace. Our consciousness of the meaning of culture, and our recognition of values and of that which raises the human being above his animal condition, are undoubtedly factors that come into play. Concerns of an ethical order are another prime factor. But in any case, we cannot situate the plane of the universe where man lives today on the same plane that existed in any other period. First, because the other eras have vanished; there are no elements left for the purposes of comparison. Second, the products of other eras have been incorporated by subsequent generations and transferred on down – take, for example, today’s digital world, which is almost our habitat. Furthermore, we have no absolute references. They say it went like this or that – but did it really? It has already been shown that interpreting historical accounts as if they were purely objective is not a good practice, because for centuries so-called historical objectivity focused on the formalization of certain aspects, and that was all. But would that be all? The modern history of mentalities challenges this outlook and emphasizes other aspects – aspects that were there before, but it was formerly said that the history of life on the margins of society was merely an accounting of unimportant facts and events. Look, technology has existed since man took his first steps on Earth. It’s not just a question of inventing rockets; chipping off a piece of stone is in itself technology. Consciousness and the advance of knowledge and of the values it implies are fundamental. In this regard, the instruments for achieving this are of utmost importance to human life. If the “polis” in the general sense – not just as a city in the narrow sense, but as life in society – is an undeniable reality, it necessarily demands an ethos. An ethos is not only moral; it’s political. A conscious awareness of this is the product of development, and the various instruments of culture are essential here. And not only books – there is also the role that science, philosophy, knowledge, and different crafts have played in expanding our practices and cognitive tools. Think about the arts, for instance: dance, music, painting, sculpture, theater, etc. – all of these, in conjunction or by themselves, interact and have a visceral impact on our experiences and lives and on the scopes of our minds.

You are self-taught. Do you take this term as a form of praise or an insult?
Neither one nor the other. It’s simply my reality. I couldn’t tell you to what extent it has been beneficial or prejudicial. In some ways, it was quite tough. In others, it was a way of gleaning things – not an attempt to venerate that which is learned but a learning that is experienced. Those were my personal life experiences within the game of circumstances. “Man is his circumstances,” to pretend that I’m citing Ortega y Gasset. So it is neither a form of praise nor an insult; it is a path like any other. Of course, it comes at a price. As formal education developed, the ways in which knowledge is gained were refined and much more efficient teaching tools and institutions were devised, making the work more rational. This doesn’t really mean anything, for we know that even in Auschwitz some of the inhuman prison guards were highly trained, educated men. So what? The easiest thing in the world is to see it happen the other way around too: the victim becomes the persecutor, because both cohabit inside him – which doesn’t mean that evil is always banal. Is there some relativism here? Yes, but when we deal in terms of the absolute we must necessarily relativize – which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be guided by certain values, because otherwise we would find ourselves adrift on a sea with no land in sight. I do not perceive any great virtue in being self-taught. In our society, it’s more painful, and precisely for this reason less efficacious. Because an autodidact is condemned to discover lessons and things that methodology, technology, and knowledge can afford us in a more systematic, fertile, and certainly more critical manner. At the same time, the absorption of formal teachings requires the learner to engage in the task of self-teaching in order to assimilate this knowledge. Transforming these teachings from something that is for you into something that is part of you is a lonely, personal process. But I do not see any type of romantic value here. I went through all this in a more anarchic fashion than I ever realized.

Was Jewish culture vital to your overall education?
I wouldn’t say that I was immune to its influence, since I was born and raised in a family of immigrants that in good measure kept to that environment. There were habits, ritual practices, the language – especially Yiddish – and certain ways of thinking, acting, and reacting to contextual impacts that were obviously with me from very early on. This is in regard to the framework that was shaped by roots and traditions. But here I must emphasize that I come from a group where reading has always been part of one’s very being, because ever since Antiquity, Judaism has bred the cultural haven of the synagogue, and with it the need to read text. So a Jewish boy is obliged to prepare for his religious coming-of-age and to affirm that he belongs to the community; he has to read the scriptures. Therefore, he must be taught to read and write; he must know the signs. And the signs, rather than being an exclusive monopoly of a clergyman, became the objects of a process of democratization, since every believer, in order to practice his Jewish creed – whatever his social class or function – must be provided with authorized, recognized access to the Book. This fact is undoubtedly the bridge that, down through our history, has allowed the Jewish people to travel the paths of rabbinical exegesis and reflection and to derive from these a grasp of society and of the world, philosophy, the sciences, and the arts and letters. In this sense, we could cite a long list that would include everything from Philo’s Platonism, Maimonides’ Aristotelianism, and Mendelssohn’s and Salomon Maimon’s rationalism to, in more recent years, Isaac Deutscher. Leaving aside the specific conditions of each individual, this critical hermeneutic permeability thus traveled down through tradition to pervade the whole relationship between modern Judaism and its members, while certainly donning countless guises in the realms where it was present and in the fields of culture. It would be pretentious of me to invoke these characteristics as mediators of my overall education, but I cannot help but think that the value that was assigned them within the group where I was raised has something to do with my intellectual interests and professional choices. This is evident in Judaica, the series with which I inaugurated Perspectiva’s publications; in its 13 volumes, I endeavored to divulge some of the main aspects of the religious, philosophical, and political thought found in popular literature and literary and poetic creations down through Judaism’s 4,000-year-old history. In contrast, however, I should also state that my education transpired no less in companionship with the Brazilian people, language, customs, and problems here in the city of São Paulo, where I have had my roots since 1930. Of course, given my age when I landed in Brazil, I quickly mastered Portuguese in the succeeding years inside school and out, and it became the only language that I used, and still use, and the one in which I can express myself with the greatest precision. It is unnecessary to add that the focus of my interests converged on what Brazilian life and culture conveyed to me in terms of history, literature, the arts, politics, and, above all, the Brazilian way of being. What’s the product of all this? This one right here.

Is the name Perspectiva meant to suggest what you think a publishing house should be?
Of course I never meant to lend it a normative character. Yet at this point, the name itself reflects two outlooks. First is the one that shows its face at the end of every month: lots of books and not much money. The other is the one that opens onto the infinite; it is distinguished by a certain attachment to the house’s original project, towards which we are – or would like to be – making progress. I would never consider establishing a publishing house where the priority would be what would sell. That would be a mistake! Albeit selling what you release is indeed an undeniable concern, our selection criterion has always been and will continue to be, for what it’s worth, that the chosen title have intellectual, scientific, or artistic merit. Obviously, we have made some mistakes. But overall, our goal has always been to offer the public the best of the canon, along with contemporary discussions and debates surrounding burning topics and vanguard ventures. Accordingly, our perspective is always the classic focus, in the broad sense of the term, and contemporary output, to the extent that it is within our grasp. So one of the domains where we have done rather notable work is theater. Without a doubt, our participation was born from my activity as a teacher at ECA-USP. The shortcomings that I detected in the bibliography were ones that I felt in the classroom. I tried to fix them, in part because I was also an editor. I pushed Perspectiva’s publications in this direction without having any prior formal project. Hence the inclusion of works that run the gamut from the Greeks and primitive rituals to post-modernism, along with the significant presence of academic production by students in the form of theses and dissertations, not to mention the work of the teachers, critics, directors, and actors from our theater. But a publishing house has to keep its sights aimed in all directions. Self-help books or best sellers by great narrators deserve due consideration, not only because of the rewards they bring in terms of an audience and commercial success, but also because of the role that they can play in the complex network that encourages reading. This is the understanding that has from the outset prompted us to value works about comic strips, communications and information, human rights, educational art, Judaism, urbanism and architecture, and even mystical questions. This has been the perspective of our Perspectiva.

Your publishing house has served as a bibliographic source for the university, editing works like Auerbach’s Mimesis and Umberto Eco’s The Open Work.
We intended to blaze the trails of a new bibliography, which wasn’t being published in certain fields here in Brazil. It would be unfair to say that this was the case in all sectors, since both Civilização Brasileira and Zahar as well as Difel published Brazilian titles and translated foreign authors who were representative of modern currents in the ambits of university scholarship and politics. Nevertheless, little of the literary essays or the philosophical and aesthetic debate that took place in the 1960s and 1970s was published for our reading public. These works seemed to constitute a trivial source, reserved for select intellectuals. Such was the case with Umberto Eco, for instance, with whom only a few – like Haroldo de Campos – were familiar. It was to promote the dissemination of this author’s thought, and of others’ as well, that we launched the series Debates, with a name and graphic design that depict it as a kind of opening to The Open Work. The proposal was generally well received, especially in university circles, and this led to our second collection, Estudos (Studies), monographic in nature, and then to Stylus, a series that encompasses converging essays on the aesthetic and stylistic movements found in various sectors of artistic creativity in the West. In these three series and in our others – like Perspectivas (Perspectives), Paralelos (Parallels), Khronos (Cronus), Textos (Texts), Elos (Links), Judaica, and Big Bang – we have offered the public the work of authors of renowned skill, along with the opportunity to take part in debates within the various branches of knowledge and learning. This list comprises names ranging from Le Corbusier to Hannah Arendt, from Foucault to Merleau-Ponty, and from Câmara Cascudo to Sábato Magaldi and Roberto Romano, for example.

And who do you publish these books for?
For the reader, a recipient who is an unknown; someone who I don’t even know but who I am certain exists. I’m convinced that Jorge Amado did not expect me to read him. I came across a book of his in a used book store on Quintino Bocaiúva street; I believe it was Suor (Sweat). I found it interesting, and this interest led me next to Jubiaba, Captains of the Sand, and subsequently to his entire work. Something similar happened around the same time with the works of José Lins do Rego, Raquel de Queiroz, and especially Graciliano Ramos. Nothing led me to these books. It was a random foray into the theme of Northeast Brazil. Perhaps this attraction stemmed vaguely from my school-day reading of Rebellion in the Backlands, by Euclides da Cunha. His dramatic description of the War of Canudos would resurface in my memory at times, less because of the historical, social, and human events associated with the ill-fated campaign than because of the exhilarating richness of its language. It introduced me to a region and a set of issues about which I knew absolutely nothing. Rethinking this pathway, I would even say that my cycle of novels about the Northeast had a root in Euclides’ backlands. I’m commenting on all this as a way of using my own experience to trace the trails that books can travel to reach their unidentified recipient and can then travel with him. I have these readers in mind too, not just the ones who seek out defined, specialized topics. The former elude market statistics but we should not doubt their presence – and in large numbers – in the expression “reading public.”

In what way is publishing a book a political matter for you?
It seems to me that every choice is a political act, in the broad sense of the term. From this angle – which also has to do with freedom of thought and expression – there is no doubt that the spectrum of topics explored in publications should be as broad as possible. However, there’s no escape from personal options or ideological preferences. Publishing is therefore a political matter as well, where freedom does not boil down to an abstract concept. I believe that like a good share of editors, I don’t have rigid preferences, but I do make choices. All you need to do is read the titles in Perspectiva’s catalogue.

You were very important for the Brazilian Concretists.
There were those who said that Haroldo de Campos was serving the São Paulo synagogue, because he published part of his works with me. Leaving aside the evident anti-Semitic nature of this remark, and possibly a bit of enviousness in it, I would say that the hat does not fit. My connection with the group was not grounded in the theses they defended, but above all in the quality of their proposal and their output. I think that Haroldo’s work is of extreme importance, and from the start of our relationship, it seemed to me that he, Augusto de Campos, and Décio Pignatari represented a spicy breath of fresh air on the Brazilian literary scene. I met Haroldo while I was at Difel. We were going to publish the work of Oswald de Andrade, under the direction of Antonio Candido. Candido himself suggested Haroldo’s name for writing the introductory study to Memórias Sentimentais de João Miramar (The sentimental memories of João Miramar). Since I was in charge of the edition, I made contact with Haroldo. And as a reader of the newspapers Correio da Manhã and Jornal do Brasil back then, I kept abreast of the movement in Brazilian letters and of the critical discussions surrounding prose and poetry, where the presence of the Concretist group could already be observed quite often, and especially Haroldo’s name. Around the same time, Anatol Rosenfeld called my attention to the audacity and aesthetics of these young men’s ideas. When I founded Perspectiva, it was not just Haroldo’s poetic work that interested me but also his critical and philosophical thought. He had an impressive mastery of the sources of classic and modern literature, an extraordinary versatility in acquiring languages, and a keen musical ear. But all this was placed at the service of something wholly new, not only in tone but in form as well. It was a new way of conceiving of writing, in the interplay and interactions with signs and with their links to the sciences and to knowledge. Haroldo was a true polymath, whose controversial form of expression caused a commotion in the midst of Brazil’s reigning literary lethargy. What was the jolt that was felt in Brazilian letters after the modernist renewal? Concretism and Haroldo. They introduced a viewpoint that is prevalent today and that ties in with information technology and communication, carrying to an extreme what Mário and Oswald de Andrade had started in a way. Yet their greatest goal was never destructive but constructive. The works of Augusto de Campos, Décio Pignatari, José Lino Grünewald, Affonso Ávila, and Haroldo himself, and of other poets in the movement, bear witness to this. To support my statements, I could also invoke the work that Haroldo did with the series that he directed for Perspectiva, called Signos (Signs); this in itself validates the place he came to occupy among our authors.

How do you think the arrival of the electronic media will impact books?
The primary question is the democratization of communication, information, culture, and the exercise of citizenship – and the extension to the broadest possible segments of the public of the right to lodge grievances. But this inherently implies the evisceration of our private lives and a sometimes shameless exhibition of all types of relationships, not to mention cheap humor running amok and the illegal use of these media. But such is the social-human process. These resources are here to stay and they have the power to foster action and social inclusion. This will not forestall the existence of elites possessing special skills, which emerge in various ways within the diverse fields of human activity – groups that take shape in economic, technical, political, scientific, artistic, benevolent, and other such domains and that boast greater expertise in these arenas and use it. Where will these dynamics take us? In my opinion, that is unpredictable. If I were a believer, I might even say that God wanted to introduce global warming as a way of ensuring the future rectification of this stampede into the infinite. For now, what we can affirm is that it is one of the driving forces behind globalization, in all societies and nations and in all of their specific values. The situation of group isolation, and even personal isolation, has disappeared, because virtual contact is now a “reality” and interactions are accelerating faster than ever, in positive and negative terms. Will we get to the global book, in electronic Esperanto? No matter, the book will live on, with or without paper, in the role of an efficacious tool for providing each individual reader with the epic, lyric, or dramatic elements that encapsulate the musings of his imagination and of his experiences and creativity on the one hand and, on the other, the products of his search within the realms of science, philosophy, mysticism, and knowledge. For my part, I am incapable of delving into such stratospheric futurological flights of fancy but remain grounded, as an editor and reader, in my commitment to the habit, journey, and enjoyment of characters, preferably of the printed variety.