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Alfredo Bosi: Poetry as a response to oppression

Recently elected to the Brazilian Academy of Literature, the professor reaffirms his belief in the power of lyricism

For Alfredo Bosi, a professor at the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), last March’s election to the Brazilian Academy of Literature (ABL) came with at least two major symbolic meanings. A scholar of Machado de Assis, he now belonged to the institution founded by the author of Dom Casmurro (1899). Besides this, his chair, number 12, was formerly occupied by Cardinal Don Lucas Moreira Neves, whom Bosi – a 66-year-old citizen of São Paulo – got to know in his youth, and whose career in drawing Catholic thinking closer to social issues served as a point of reference to him.

On the ABL’s side, the arrival of a full intellectual, a left-winger and activist, like Alfredo Bosi, ratifies what ought to be one of the objectives of the entity: to turn itself into a broad portrait of the country’s culture, at the same time that can stimulate greater contact between it and the universities. In the interviews he granted straight after his victory – by 27 votes to 10, given to journalist and writer from Maranhão Josê Louzeiro (there was one abstention) -, the professor insisted that one of his intentions was to act as a bridge between the two academic worlds.

After graduating in Literature from USP in 1960, Bosi started to give lessons in Italian literature there in 1962, after returning from a period of studies in Italy. In 1964, he defended a doctoral thesis on Pirandello, and in 1970 he acquired professorial status, with a work about the poetry of Leopardi. At that time, though, he was already showing another interest – not by chance, his classic História Concisa da Literatura Brasileira [Concise History of Brazilian Literature] also dates back to 1970. Two years afterwards, Alfredo Bosi was to start lecturing in this discipline in the FFLCH’s Classical and Vernacular Literature Department.

The editor of the magazine of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA) since 1987 and a director of the same institute from 1997 onwards, Bosi coordinated, in the midst of other activities, the Commission for the Defense of the Public University (1998).Prominent amongst his books, besides História Concisa da Literatura Brasileira, are O Ser e o Tempo da Poesia [The Being and the Time of Poetry] (1977), Cêu, Inferno: Ensaios de Crítica Literária e Ideológica [Heaven, Hell: Essays in Literary and Ideological Criticism](1988), Dialêtica da Colonização [Dialectics of Colonization] (1992), Machado de Assis: o Enigma do Olhar [Machado de Assis: the Enigma in the Look] (1999) and Literatura e Resistência [Literature and Resistance] (2002). It was precisely on his work that Alfredo Bosi made a point of discoursing, in the interview that follows. It is understandable. That is what really makes him immortal.

In the text that opens the volume Leitura de Poesia [Poetry Reading] (2001), which you organized, it is clear that this genre lies at the origin of your concerns as a literary critic. In O Ser e o Tempo da Poesia, you seek to analyze a poem in its, so to speak, formal nature and in its ideological role. The conclusion is that we are dealing with a genre that should give priority neither to technicality (art for art’s sake) nor to political sectarianism (engagement), nor again the market (in other words, consumerism). “Poetry brings, under the species of figure and sound, that reality for which, or against which, it is worthwhile fighting”, you wrote. Implicit here is a belief in the power of the poetic word, which in a way takes one to the power of the word in itself, of making what is real present itself to man. Since Plato’s Cratylus, at least, this has been a moot point that mobilizes poets and thinkers. In what measure does poetry succeed in bringing contemporary man “the reality for which, or against which, it is worthwhile fighting”?
My first lessons in Italian literature on the Neolatin Literature course at USP’s School of Philosophy, in which Professor Italo Bettarelo would read us a very fine analysis that Croce did of a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, strengthened the conviction that poetry is the densest and most intense form of verbal expression. The word can, of course, have many functions. Anyone who has been through the linguistics of a Jakobson, for example, knows that the word can be, at times, purely referential, purely connected with the immediate perception of reality. But the word may take on other functions: the function of action, when the word is eloquent, and political, and a function of expressing man’s deepest sentiments – in this case, when the word is lyrical. My conception of poetry has a lot to do with the predominance of lyrical expression. Croce used to say that poetry is, above all, lyricalness, that is, it is profoundly linked to the most intimate and the most significant experiences of the human being. If we pass on from this conception, which is close to German idealism, filtered by Croce, to a dialectical current connected with the Frankfurt School, above all Adorno, we shall see that the idea is maintained that poetry expresses the most radical subjectivity of the human being. However, besides this existential, fundamental characteristic, poetry will also have, or may have, the role of contradicting the abusiveness of ideologies, in particular of the dominant ideologies. Why? Because ideologies, in general, rationalize and justify power, In the capitalist system there is a constant, ideological, use of the word, which seeks to convince the user to transform everything into merchandise and to consume all merchandise as the supreme good. Well, in this particular context, in which we are living, which is a consumer society, in which everything has a venal value, the lyrical word sounds like a strange message, because it escapes from this empire of ideology, it sends us on to certain human, universal traits, to certain common sentiments, to humanity, like anguish in the face of death, indignation in the face of repression – in short, the lyrical word is in tension with the dominant ideology, and this is an evidently dialectic role.

In this sense, the conception of poetry that I profess tends to tie together the two currents of which I spoke. Let me sum them up: the poetry as an expression current, which is the great conquest of Benedetto Croce, the esthetics of which is a whole meditation on the expressive existential character of language, and the negative dialectical current of the Frankfurt School, which seeks to show how poetry brings an original voice, often strange, but in every way resistant to the dominant ideology. This conjunction of Croce and Adorno should not cause any surprise, because both were very attentive readers of Hegelian dialectic, which has as one of its live points the proposition of antithesis, negativity. Poetry as a response to oppressive ideologies really is the fulcrum for my ponderations on lyricism, which are expressed at several moment of my work and crystallized in the essay that is called Poesia Resistência [Resistance Poetry], one of the chapters of O Ser e o Tempo da Poesia.

As a professor and historian of Brazilian literature, it was inevitable for you to end up, at a certain stage of your career, coming across the challenge of analyzing the work of Machado de Assis in depth – which happens with O Enigma do Olhar . What is the root of the Machadian personages? Could there be, amongst the elements responsible for the perennial nature of Machado’s tragic heroes, the Aristotelian teaching that they should neither be entirely good nor entirely bad?
Machado’s personages are not homogeneous, that is, it is not right to read Machado de Assis’s fiction as if it were a gallery of typical figures, of personages that represent a mirror of Brazilian social life in the second half of the 19th century. This strictly sociological reading of Machado’s work is a one-sided reading. Why? If, on the one hand, he was indeed a keen observer of our asymmetrical social structure, in which there were those who gave the orders, those who could, and those who live on patronage, the people on lived in household as a favor; if it is true that Machado de Assis was a reader of social differences, on the other hand he saw from the inside what the sociology of literature usually sees from the outside, as crystallized types from society. Let me explain myself: there are some personages in Machado’s work that practically embody certain social types. A character like Cotrim (from Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas [Posthumous Memories of Bras Cubas] of 1881), a man well established in life and highly esteemed because he favors the poor, the fraternities of those days, is, at the same time, violent with the slaves. He is a king of allegory of one part of our dominant class. So a personage like Cotrim lends weight to the idea of typification, but Machado de Assis’s work is not made up just of these personages from the dominant class, with traits of a bourgeoisie that is still backward and that lives in harmony with slavery, so that is has strong elements of hypocrisy in its conduct, or at the other extreme, of cynicism.

This characterization exists, but is not the only one. The subtlety of the work of Machado comes from showing that inside each social class people are differentiated. The personages of Machado de Assis that interest us today are not reduced to crystallized social types. Take the women who live in the household, but are part of the family, the hangers-on . They constitute a certain class, a certain group that we look down on, sociologically. But when we come down to the text, when we go into the secret of the text, we see that there are very perceptible differences in behavior and in the inner life amongst the various hangers-on who arise in the work of Machado. Compare, for example, a personage like Guiomar, from A Mão e a Luva [The Hand and the Glove] (a book from 1875), who is at the same time a hanger-on and a cold person, opportunist, who wants to go up in life and avails herself of the affection of her protector to do so – and so is a complete type of the ambitious hanger-on, a sociologically very representative figure. Compare this personage with Helena, from the novel that bears the same name (published in 1876), or with Estela, from Iaiá Garcia (of 1878), who are personages who also live in a condition of dependence, although they cannot stand this and rebel with dignity – either by sacrifice and by death, in Helena’s case, or by stoicism, in Estela’s. I am citing these examples to show that there is in Machado the social type and there is the person in the actual wealth of his difference. This is as regards the first part of the question.

And as to the second part
As to the second, about the dual nature of the tragic heroes, I think that yes, one can fit it to Machado’s characters, in which we find virtues and defects, courage and cowardice. A personage as much discussed as Bentinho, from the Dom Casmurro novel, represents precisely this very often dramatic conjunction of love and hate, of trust and suspicion, of an ingenuous passion, in the beginning, and, afterwards, rancorous jealousy. Incidentally, one should not judge the personage; this is a serious vice of moralist criticism, which tries to identify certain traits of class in the personage and to reduce it to a set of characteristics that can be condemned by our current ideological vision.
Machado is not set on condemnation. He certainly wanted to show the internal oscillations and, above all, the dramas that the personages experience, that make of them at times stoic figures, full of dignity, and at others fragile persons. Therein lies the richness of Machado’s work: showing these contradictions, something that the naturalism of the 19th century did not manage to do, because it would characterize the personage a priori and was incapable of showing its inner oscillations. I would say that the root of Machado’s personages is the idea that man is a complex and frequently unpredictable being, enigmatic, even, for the narrator himself. And he is all the time going deeper into the enigma of the human being. I think that it is this that gives Machado superiority, in the light of the reductive realism of his times.

When you came back to Brazil, in 1962, after one year of studies in Italy, discussion on cultural identity was in vogue. At that moment, the action of the left was prevailing, with the CPCs ( Portuguese acronym for Popular Culture Center – which were organized by students union with a leftist and anti-imperialist leaning ) , for example. Afterwards, there came the military and all that we know. Very well: for a certain time, the concept of cultural identity has been left aside – for example, one talks of cultural identification, in which the elements change places the whole time. Does this somehow accentuate the role of cultural resistance, or is this too an outdated concept, within the dynamics that are to be seen in culture? (Always remembering that you understand Brazilian culture, as it cannot fail to be, as something plural.)
Indeed, in the 60’s, above all before the military coup of 64, there was a set of political and cultural forces that were betting on the creation of a national identity, which would be in opposition, especially, to the American-based cultural imperialism, which was already extending itself over the world, particularly over the dependent countries of Latin America. National and antinational polarity, or Brazilian versus imperialist, was then a very active component of the ideology of the left, which sought to make these Brazilian traits stand out, in opposition to cultural imperialism, by means of creation in folklore, in the cinema, in the theater and in music. It was a position that had, shall we say, great coherence, and it circulated in university and journalistic circles. What happened after the coup, and in a more intense manner in the 70’s and 80’s, was a revision of this concept of a very closed, very homogeneous national identity, to the extent that mass civilization and, within this, the cultural industry, globalized, advanced to such a point that it started to become difficult to distinguish or to isolate what was purely national from what was now an exploitation of Brazilian motifs within a picture of a merchandise culture, of global consumption. In a way, this distancing from a national or nationalist ideology is alive up until today.

I think that it is very difficult at the moment, after the advances of globalization, and of the consumer society, for us to recover, in its purity, the concept of an autonomous national culture – such as was put forward between the 50’s and the 60’s. But what I do see today is that, right in the age of globalization, and confronted by this seemingly irreversible process, there are characteristics of the local cultures, with their identities, which have appeared and made very strong opposition. We live in a strange period, which merits an in-depth anthropological study, in which phenomena of mass culture very close to American cultural imperialism and a refined research into local popular sources live side by side. Today, then, a Brazilian filmmaker of worth is, at the same time, capable of using modern techniques, learnt from the American and European cinema, to project images and transmit sentiments that have very deep roots in common life. That is what happens in this masterpiece of the Brazilian cinema Behind the Sun (Abril Despedaçado, by Walter Salles Jr.).This is a curious phenomenon: instead of our talking of global national identities, which could not fail to have a ideological bias as well, we are looking today, inside ordinary life, its plurality and its richness. There are the religious movements, movements of environmental culture, feminist movements – what people feel is that there is an awakening of the conscience that proposes special forms of its particular experiences, which do not wish to be submitted to this routine of mass culture.

The concept of national identity has been in crisis for some time and was replaced by two opposite and contemporary forces: by globalization, which has no native land (this is what I would call the negative side), and, positively, by the deepening of popular experiences. This appears in music, in the cinema, in critical discourse. It is this second current that interests us closely: how it is that popular culture is being filtered by erudite artists, very often from the universities, and is gaining new forms. This is a complex process that is still developing before our eyes – and which is worthwhile studying. This happens in Brazil, but also at other points of the planet: in Iran, which has an extraordinary cinema, in India, in countries, in short, that were violently modernized in the last 50 years, but whose intellectuals are always working on images and sentiments connected with the popular experience. I would say that today globalization, which has opposed itself to national identity, is no longer a single way of thinking; it is being contrasted by going into depth locally, which has been giving an enigmatic, paradoxical richness to contemporary culture.

In Dialêtica da Colonização, a book that was put on the same level as the fundamental works of Sêrgio Buarque de Holanda and Gilberto Freyre, you often disagree with these two thinkers. In your opinion, there is in Sêrgio Buarque the “sublimation of the trailblazer” and in Freyre, the “sublimationof the lord of the mill”. Could you please pick up this issue again, and, doing a self-analysis, talk about the weight of certain sets of ideas in your comprehension of Brazil?
In the first chapter of Dialêtica da Colonização, I was concerned with tracking down in our best critical historiography the great visions of Brazil, above all those that were formulated by scholars of the 30’s. This decade was extraordinarily fecund; in it, many Brazilian intellectuals had a project to get to know Brazil and, if possible, to transform it. The decade of the 30’s is a watershed between the jingoistic vision of the country and a critical vision, of reconstruction, interested in redefining the question of national identity that we were talking about just now, to define the Brazilian man. Accordingly, I could not fail to pore over the two greatest interpreters of Brazil of that decade, and it was not by chance that I had to speak of the work of Gilberto Freyre and Sêrgio Buarque de Holanda, two central names, authors of two classic works, Casa-Grande&Senzala [The Masters and the Slaves] (from 1933) and Raízes do Brasil [Roots of Brazil] (from 1936). My reading was not blind.

I did not do my reading from mere admiration for the stylistic wealth or for the depth of observation of these authors. I also made an effort to understand them in their essence and to keep a certain distance, which, faced by them, is not easy, as they are both very persuasive. My first reaction was to feel that there was in both authors a strong idea of culture as agglutination – more than that, as harmonization of the colonizer and the colonized. In the light of this understanding, the other side, which is violence and exploitation – of the trailblazers who would rape the Indian women, who totally destroyed the Jesuit missions, or of the lord of the mill, who created a civilization where there was a lot of violence as well -, this other side, as I was saying, was not absent, because the two authors were very lucid, but it was kept modestly in the background.

I think it had to be said, without detracting from those extraordinary explainers of Brazil, that the images that come from their works had something to do with what people call “sublimation” of the lord of the mill and of the trailblazer (and, later, of the coffee lord). Later, of course, as we go on reading and rereading the two authors, we go on spotting other aspects ? popular anthropology, for example, that they saw very shrewdly. But the feeling that they sublimated the colonizer is still present in my reading. Can this have something to do with the left-wing culture in which I was brought up? Perhaps, and why not? I shall not do an ideological self-analysis here, because, naturally, others will do it better than I. Readers from outside generally have more shrewdness for perceiving what the ideological roots of our thinking are. But I admit that I went through a distancing with regard to those two distinguished explainers of Brazil.

Still talking about Dialêtica da Colonização. In a postface, you analyzed the situation of Brazilian culture in the year the book was launched, in 1992. Does the postface continue to be valid, or has there by any chance been any change worthy of note?
Generally speaking, I would maintain the observations I made in the postface to Dialêtica da Colonização. The important thing in that addendum was to show that those three cultures I had surveyed – popular culture, university culture, and mass culture – were more and more imbricated; that in the era of globalization it was much more difficult to isolate the three currents. With some astonishment, I noted the extraordinary growth of the Pentecostal sects, which,inspite of their ultratraditional, profoundly regressive elements, almost in the sense of a superstition – in opposition to a left-wing, progressive Catholic Church, which is seeking to draw closer to modernity – , availed themselves of the great mass media communications and resorted to motivations of savage modern capitalism.

It was a phenomenon that was in a way new, which had not been contemplated in the relationship between mass culture and popular culture that I had done in the body of the work – hence the need for the postface.I think that the relationship between mass culture and popular culture continues to merit being gone into in more depth, in the light of the phenomenon of the sects, which is all over the planet and growing rapidly on the outskirts of the metropolises. Still today, in 2003, we are faced by the phenomenon of the imbrication of extremely regressive attitudes, with forms of capitalist ultramodernity, the use of the media, the constant appeal to money – in short, something that does not fail to be depressing, for someone who, during so many years, has sought to live at the frontier between Christianity and socialism. My progressive vision of the Christian values does not fail to become very perplexed, faced by a profoundly capitalist use of texts and messages from a biblical past. I would of course have more to say on this phenomenon of the imbrication of those three cultures, but the growth of the sects – which, I repeat, is not happening just in Brazil; it is happening on the outskirts of the Latin American metropolises that have been submitted to savage capitalism – is something that still calls my attention a lot.