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João Adolfo Hansen: A journey through Brazilian literature

Literary specialist brought important collaborations to the study of colonial poetry, without disregarding other periods such as modernism

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

In the 1980s, delving into the work attributed to Bahian poet Gregório de Matos (1636–1696), São Paulo scholar João Adolfo Hansen shed new light on the poetry produced during Brazil’s colonial era, opening fresh approaches to understanding the period. He employed a variety of methods, researching rhetoric and history in an attempt to comprehend what these voices from the past had to tell us. Hansen also argued against the idea that Matos, known by the nickname “Boca do Inferno,” was a revolutionary and an anarchist. The scholar believes that although Matos provoked the powerful of the time with his obscene satires, the poet was not seeking to break with the monarchy and the Catholic Church, because as a member of the elite, he shared their values.

These conclusions are described in A satira e o engenho: Gregório de Matos e a Bahia do século XVII (Satire and ingenuity: Gregório de Matos and the Bahia of the seventeenth century), the doctoral thesis in Brazilian literature Hansen defended in 1988 at the University of São Paulo (USP). Published the following year by Companhia das Letras, the homonymous book was awarded the 1990 Jabuti Prize in the Literary Studies category. It was later reissued by Editora Unicamp publishing.

Age 80
Field of expertise
Brazilian literature; rhetoric and poetics; prose and poetry theory
University of São Paulo (USP)
Educational background
Bachelor’s degree (1964) in Letters from the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas, Master’s (1983) and Doctorate (1988) in Brazilian Literature from USP
Published works
83 articles and 22 books

Educated in Letters, Hansen was a professor at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH) at USP for almost three decades, from 1983 to 2012, when he retired. In 2021, he became a professor emeritus at FFLCH. Recently, part of his output was compiled in Agudezas seiscentistas e outros ensaios (Seventeenth century insights and other essays; EDUSP, 2019), a collection of 14 articles on Luso-Brazilian literature from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. However, Hansen’s studies aren’t limited to the colonial period. Proof of this can be found in the collection’s second volume, currently being readied for press by the same editors who prepared the first volume, Cilaine Alves Cunha, from FFLCH, and Mayra Laudanna, from the Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB-USP). Scheduled to be released next year, the book will focus on Hansen’s writings about Brazilian literature by nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors such as Machado de Assis (1839–1908) and Clarice Lispector (1920–1977).

With his characteristic good humor, Hansen received Pesquisa FAPESP’s reporter in the apartment where he lives in São Paulo’s Pinheiros district, with his wife, Marta Maria Chagas de Carvalho, a retired professor at the USP School of Education. Hansen has four children and five grandchildren. In the following interview, he speaks on a variety of subjects, including his appreciation for the classroom, reading, and research.

When did you start teaching?
In the 1960s I studied letters at PUC [Pontifical Catholic University] in Campinas, but I lived in Americana. I commuted every day by bus. During my undergraduate years, I was already teaching Portuguese at private schools in smaller cities around the state of São Paulo. With the money I earned teaching, I came to the capital a couple of times a month. I would stay at the “Fraternity of Bulgaria,” our nickname for the apartment where some friends from Americana lived, located on Avenida São João. It was a mess. In São Paulo, I used to love going to the Parthenon and Francesa bookstores, on Rua Barão de Itapetininga, and usually returned to Americana with a suitcase full of books.

Did you always like to read?
Yes. My father, João Alfredo, was a big reader, although he had only attended school through—what today would be—the fifth grade. I was born in Cosmopolis, in the state of São Paulo, in 1942. When I was two years old, my family moved because my father got a job as a weaving technician at his older brother’s factory in Americana. In his spare time, he liked to fish and buy books. I grew up reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade [1902–1987], Machado de Assis, Clarice Lispector, Graciliano Ramos [1892–1953], and Dostoevsky [1821–1881]. A lot of it came from my father’s library. In my case, in addition to books, I’ve always loved plants and animals. So much so that I almost studied agronomy, but I ended up dropping out because of biology and chemistry, subjects that I did well in at school but that didn’t pique my interest. I thought they were really boring.

Personal archiveWith French historian Anne-Marie Chartier in Paris in the 1990sPersonal archive

Going back to your early career: what was the beginning of your career as a teacher like?
In 1964 I got my degree in Anglo-Germanic letters, having decided to work in public education. I thought that there was, and of course still is, a lot to be done for public education in Brazil. At that time, my elementary school Latin teacher was retiring. And I, at the age of 22, had the brashness and temerity to apply to be his replacement to teach the classics course at the President Kennedy Institute of Education, in Americana. I was accepted, and I taught at this public school from 1964 to 1966. At the end of that year, I passed the civil service exam and became a full-time Portuguese teacher in the São Paulo state education system. Beginning in March 1968, when I was contracted, I taught in Pindamonhangaba [1968–69], Poá [1969], and Santo André [1970–1977], cities in the state of São Paulo. It was the post-AI5 [Institutional Act Number Five] era, with undercover police agents infiltrating the classroom, disguised as students. If the teacher said something that these spies considered subversive, he was denounced and sent for interrogation at the DOPS [Department of Political and Social Order].

Were you arrested during the military dictatorship (1964–1985)?
No, but I was threatened. There was a senior–year student taking the night course in Santo André, who always sat in the back of the room, writing everything down. One day he introduced himself as a DOPS agent and said something like: “You teach very well, but you also say some compromising things. I’ve already arrested people for much less. I have a partner who wants to report you and you could be arrested at any time. Be careful.” Fortunately, nothing happened to me, but colleagues and friends of mine were arrested. Some just disappeared.

When did you enter graduate school?
In 1968 I entered the master’s program in linguistics at USP under the supervision of Professor Isaac Nicolau Salum [1913–1993]. But I soon abandoned my research, which was at a very embryonic stage, because I couldn’t reconcile work and study. In 1975 I returned to the USP postgraduate program, this time in the field of Brazilian literature. During the course given by Professor José Carlos Garbuglio on Grande sertão: Veredas [The Devil to Pay in the Backlands], I chose Guimarães Rosa [1908–1967] as my research subject. I had been reading Rosa since I was a teenager and I’ve always admired his generosity towards those who are voiceless. I started writing my dissertation in 1977 but shelved it two years later to teach university prep courses and at a private college, as a professor of linguistics and Brazilian literature. Finally, in 1982, I resumed writing. The following year I defended the study, and then under pressure from my academic supervisor, took the competitive exam and, at 41, became a professor of Brazilian literature at USP.

In your dissertation, you defend the idea that Grande sertão: Veredas is a kind of “Real Macunaíma.” What did you mean by that?In Macunaíma, Mário de Andrade [1893–1945] examines in an ironic, parodic, and even carnivalesque manner various theories about the formation of national character. Obviously, he was not referring to “character” in the sense of “ethics,” as if Macunaíma were a hero without any morals. Mário de Andrade is thinking about something deeper, about what the cultural ethos of the Brazilian hero would be, as one who is African, indigenous, and European. He advocates the creation of a modern, inventive literature, but one without a nationalist character. And Guimarães Rosa takes this idea to its radical limit. His project aims to give voice to the languages that have been part of the fabric of Brazil since the sixteenth century, but he tries to dissolve them in a great vortex, in a great whirlpool, which suggests paths, small roads, towards forms that haven’t yet been produced. Grande sertão: Veredas is not simply a postmodern, concrete, formalist metalinguistic exercise. It’s something much bigger. Rosa was working on both a literary-linguistic and a metaphysical project, which was the idea of founding a literature, founding a people, founding a Brazil. But he does so without resorting to the parody present in Macunaíma.

For your doctorate you studied the poet Gregório de Matos. Who was he?
Gregório de Matos was born in the early seventeenth century, in Salvador, then the center of administrative and legal life in the Colony. He was the son of a Brazilian mother and a Portuguese nobleman who became a plantation owner in the Recôncavo Baiano [region of Bahia]. His family was influential and close to the family of Father Antônio Vieira [1608–1697]. Around the age of 14 he was sent to Portugal and, like every rich boy of the time, educated in canon law at the University of Coimbra, in 1661. By the way, the only place you can see his signature is in the university’s enrollment book. Although not much is known about his life, he is believed to have married and worked as a judge in Portugal. There are those who say that he handed down his judicial sentences in verses.

I began teaching during the post-AI5 era, with undercover police agents infiltrating the classroom

When did he return to Brazil?
In 1682 Gregório was appointed by the Portuguese king to occupy an ecclesiastical position at a church in Salvador, but, when he discovered that he would need to take a vow of chastity, he gave up the idea. He opened a law firm in Salvador, married for a second time and had a son, Gonçalo. It is not known why, in 1684, he took off his nobleman’s clothes, put on a nightshirt and took to strolling through the Recôncavo Baiano accompanied by a group of street performers and prostitutes. Playing a gourd guitar, he would present his satirical poetry at the plantations, which was quite obscene—pornographic—and earned him the nickname Boca do Inferno [mouth of hell]. In 1694 he was exiled to Angola. Two years later, back in Brazil, he settled in Recife, where he died on November 26, 1696, and was buried at a convent that was demolished in the eighteenth century. Nothing is left of him but his poetry.

And what was his poetry like? What did he write about?
A very large body of poetry manuscripts is attributed to Matos, which are both lyrical, with love or religious themes, and comical, in the form of satire. Satire is a genre born in ancient Rome, and was characterized by railing against, cursing, and disqualifying the target being attacked. While it uses obscene language to do so, it is extremely moralistic. As Gregório de Matos himself used to say, it wounds in order to heal. This aspect of his production—which is, as it happens, very sarcastic—was the focus of my research. On the whole, the work attributed to Matos deals with themes from the state of Bahia. At the same time, he uses various contemporary European cultural references from the seventeenth century, which he quotes all the time, as well as using ancient poetic forms, both lyrical and comic.

You used the term “attributed to.” Why?
Gregório de Matos did not publish anything in print during his lifetime. In the seventeenth century, not only was the circulation of printed material prohibited in the Colony, a majority of the population was illiterate. Satires were written on single sheets of paper of various sizes, which were customarily stuck on the doors of churches at dawn. Later, someone who knew how to read would recite the verses aloud to an illiterate audience and, since they were easily memorized, they ended up inspiring new poems by other people. This practice produced a large number of poems that circulated anonymously during the era. There were people who collected these manuscripts, which were then sewn together to form notebooks, called codices. It’s worth mentioning that this production, collected without any standard criteria, includes texts of dubious authorship, and, in the case of Matos, there isn’t one poem that’s identical among the different extant codices produced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These codices are found in Brazil, but also in the United States, Spain, France, and Portugal. Due to the large number of poems—more than 700—it’s difficult to suppose that they were all written by him.

Didn’t this uncertainty about authorship bother you when you were doing your research?
I believe we can read these residues as documents of symbolic practices from a colonial society and not just an individual. In other words, my focus has always been on the production and not the person Gregório de Matos. When I started my research, I brushed aside everything that has been said about him, for example, that he was a degenerate, an alcoholic, mentally ill, a revolutionary, and an anarchist. These stories began to be told in the eighteenth century, and over time they’ve even managed to create a relationship between his biography and his work, which is nonsense.

Personal archiveWith British historian Peter Burke, with whom he became friends in the 1980sPersonal archive

What challenges did you encounter during your research?
When I started the study—which was also supervised by Professor Garbuglio—I knew very little about the literary production attributed to Gregório de Matos. In my thesis I investigate the fundamental relationship between his satirical poetry and the Bahian and Portuguese society in the world of the colonial sugar plantations. And I sought to do this by comparing this poetic production with the treatises on rhetoric and the historical documents of the time. These include the denunciations of sins and heresies to the Holy Office, an arm of the Inquisition that operated in Bahia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As I showed in the thesis, seventeenth-century satire has a lot in common with the techniques of the Catholic inquisition, especially when accusing sinners. Satire presupposes a system of virtues that are being corrupted by wicked practices. In this case, the idea is to censor vice to reaffirm virtue. Other documents that were critical for analyzing satire were the minutes from the Chamber [House of Representatives] and letters of the Senate—which I located in the Municipal Archive of Salvador—because they deal with characters and events that, in general, also appear in the poems. Gathering this documentation was a challenge, as well as finding the bibliography in Brazil that could meet the scope of the research. And don’t forget that I did this research in an analog world. Today, period texts on rhetoric such as Arte dello stile, ove nel cercarsi l’idea dello scrivere insegnativo [1647], by Sforza Pallavicino [1607–1667], are available on the internet, but in the 1980s I was only able to access a few excerpts in an Italian anthology.

How did you get around the problem?
It was painstaking work. I combed through second-hand bookstores and public libraries in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. I had friends traveling abroad bring me the primary treatises on ancient rhetoric written by scholars such as Lodovico Castelvetro [c. 1505–1571], Baltasar Gracián [1601–1658], and Francisco Leitão Ferreira [1667–1735] which we’re in circulation on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This material had already been edited and was available in bookstores in Europe. In 1987, I had just begun writing the thesis when I found—in the rare books section of the National Library in Rio de Janeiro—an edition of Il cannocchiale aristotelico, or, in free translation, “Aristotelian Telescope,” written in 1654 by Count Emanuele Tesauro [1592–1675], a Jesuit. The copy I researched was from 1685 and belonged to the Portuguese academic Francisco Leitão Ferreira [1667–1735] and had also been part of the collection in the library of Dom João VI [1767–1826]. This work, which systematized certain concepts of rhetoric, was fundamental to my understanding of the satire of that period. I remember that the library staff lent me a magnifying glass so that I could read the 900-page tome. If the difficulty of deciphering archaic Italian wasn’t enough, parts of the interior pages had been eaten away by bookworms. Since the book’s precarious condition prevented mechanical reproduction, I copied the entire twelfth chapter, “Trattato de’ ridicoli,” or “Treatise of the Ridiculous” by hand, as it was what most interested my research.

You worked with a large volume of information. How did you organize it all?
In order to obtain a spatial, systematic, and structural view of the mythology narrated by indigenous South Americans, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss [1908–2009] wrote everything down on pieces of card stock and hung them on two parallel clotheslines in a large room at the Museum of Mankind, in Paris. As I didn’t have a computer in those days, I decided to do something similar. I bought reams of paper and assembled twelve notebooks. Each of them was about 300 pages long. I created a kind of hand-written glossary in them with recurring terms found in the works attributed to Matos and the satire of the era. It started with Abaeté, the lagoon in Salvador, and ended with zoilo, which means crazy, stupid. Visualizing these elements helped me understand the world that I was researching. I felt like an archaeologist of sorts.

It must have been an immense amount of work.
Tell me about it. Among other things, I annotated the Obras completas de Gregório de Matos [Complete works of Gregório de Matos] [1968], a seven-volume series edited by sociologist James Amado [1922–2013]. In the 1960s, James—who was the brother of the writer Jorge Amado [1912–2001]—and the poet Maria da Conceição da Cruz Paranhos went to the National Library and conducted a survey in the codex of Manuel Pereira Rabelo, from the eighteenth century, believed to be Matos’s first biographer. Later, in 2013, Marcello Moreira—who had been my student at USP—and I edited and analyzed poems attributed to Matos collected in the Asensio-Cunha codex. This is a document from the eighteenth century, which today belongs to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The work was released by Autêntica publishing in 2014, in five volumes. Marcello, now a professor at the State University of Southwest Bahia, is considered—and it’s my opinion as well—one of the greatest specialists in codicology in the world.

What did your doctoral research point out about the satire attributed to Gregório de Matos?
The image of Gregorio de Matos as an anarchist and a subversive was created by critics and historians of the nineteenth century, and, in a way, remains to this day. In my thesis I show that, contrary to what some contemporary interpretations proposed, the satire attributed to Matos was not opposed to the powers that be. Although he criticized customs, which did not spare the powerful of the time, his goal was to point out excesses and deviance, without, however, criticizing social norms and hierarchies. The ‘lyrical subject’ is that of a white, literate, Catholic nobleman, who shares the values of the elite of the time—who, among other things, enslaved blacks and murdered indigenous people in order to occupy their lands. It was an extremely unequal aristocratic society with a deep disdain for manual work. I also show in the thesis that Matos’s poetry followed a model that, during the seventeenth century, was taught and systematized in the schools of the Society of Jesus [Jesuits], where he was a student.

During my doctoral research on the poet Gregório de Matos I felt like a kind of archaeologist

How did you arrive at that conclusion?
The person who brought my attention to this point was the English historian Peter Burke, with whom I became good friends. In the 1980s he came to teach a course at USP, and I was invited to do the simultaneous interpreting. One of his classes was on insults in seventeenth-century Italy, a common genre in that period, which was extremely obscene and reminded me of the writings of Gregório de Matos. Peter did not know Matos’s work but raised the hypothesis that this production could be part of an international network of cultural models. At the time, he had collected a great deal of documentation about the Society of Jesus. It is known that the Jesuits formed a kind of transnational cultural agency, existing in various parts of the world. So, scholars in France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and later in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, for example, shared the same references, the same repertoire.

Why read Gregório de Matos?
He is an extremely cultured poet, with a deep knowledge of literary codes. And his work signals that we don’t need to wait for the authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as prescribed by works such as Formação da literatura brasileira [The formation of Brazilian literature] [1959], by Antonio Candido [1918–2017], to start thinking about cultural practices in Brazil. Candido states that material conditions for literary dissemination didn’t exist in the Colony, but today we know that there was an absolutely coherent cultural system in the seventeenth century, which cannot be ignored. In other words, there were other ways of reading and writing in Brazil at the time.

Does this topic still interest you?
Yes. For three years I’ve been developing the project “Técnicas do gênero retrato nos séculos XVI, XVII e XVIII” [Portrait techniques in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries], with the support of CNPq [National Council for Scientific and Technological Development], in which I intend to use rhetorical treatises to show the relationship between the sculpture, painting, and poetry of that period. I’ve been writing a lot about it, and I intend to publish this production after the project is finished, next year. But, of course, I have other interests. I’ve just delivered my translation of “Eólo” [Aeolus], the seventh chapter of Ulysses, by James Joyce, which will be part of the book Ulisses – A dezoito vozes [Ulysses in eighteen voices], edited by Henrique Piccinato Xavier. Not to mention that at the moment, although I’m retired, I’m supervising postgraduate researchers at USP. The subjects are diverse, ranging from the letters of Father Antônio Vieira to the literature of Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst [1930–2004]. I like this multiplicity, which can seem exotic in an increasingly specialized world.

In the book A arte da aula [The art of the class], you write: “At USP, something very rare happened to me: I witnessed the conversion of a man through poetry.” What was the story behind that?
It was in the late 1990s, when I was teaching a course on modernism for undergraduate Letters students. I mainly covered Drummond, but also dealt with Murilo Mendes [1901–1975], João Cabral de Melo Neto [1920–1999], Graciliano Ramos, Guimarães Rosa, and Clarice Lispector. From 1983, the year I became a professor at USP, until 2012, when I retired, I taught the night school courses. Most of the students worked all day, as was the case with this one student, always wearing a suit and tie, and everything just so. At the end of the course, he showed up in jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers. From yuppie to hippie. He told me that he had been an executive at a large company, and that Drummond’s poetry had moved him so much that he’d decided to change his life. For that reason, he’d resigned to become a teacher in the urban suburbs. And he recited an excerpt from the poem “Elegias”: “Trabalhas sem alegria para um mundo caduco” [You work without joy for an obsolete world]. At the time, I told him he was crazy. I met this student again about two years later and he was firmly resolved about his decision. That’s why I love the classroom. This exchange with students is very rich. As Riobaldo says in Grande sertão: Veredas, a master is not one who teaches, but one who learns.

What is the role of literature today?
Unfortunately, it’s getting smaller. Since the early 1990s, it no longer has the same educational character it had, for example, for my generation. I learned a lot from literature, much more, I believe, than in high school, in the classics program, and at university.