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Silenced love

How the policies of the nineteenth century elite shaped our sexuality

Reproductions from the book Caricaturistas brasileiros, Ed. Sextante Artes. Seduced by Capitu, readers and critics that discuss the novel Dom Casmurro do not always pay attention to another point of the triangle: the relationship between Bentinho and Escobar. In his research, however, the sociologist Richard Miskolci observes, from this viewpoint, the work of the author Machado de Assis and of other late nineteenth century writers, in his study O desejo da nação [The wish of the nation], supported by FAPESP. By using as his sources not only literary works but also political and scientific ones, he tried to combine a historical reconstitution and a sociological analysis in order to understand how the political and social interests of the time led to the control of sexuality, notably of homosexuality, among white men from the elite.

Studies about the building of the Brazilian nation during this time almost invariably focus on political discussions or on ethnical and racial relations. “In Brazil, the experience of colonization and of slavery gave rise to certain sexuality features, from desire to eroticism,” assesses Miskolci, a professor at the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), where he coordinates the research group Corpo, Identidades and Subjetivações [Body, Identities and Subjective Elements] (

Contrary to the currently dominant representations about Brazil, which center on permissiveness or sexual freedom, the researcher argues that we are characterized by specific cultural conventions that are yet to be analyzed in depth. “Identifying them is challenging,” he explains. “I want to understand how we fit into specific forms of control and the “agencing” of desire and even what our very own erotic grammar is.”

Reproductions from the book Caricaturistas brasileiros, Ed. Sextante Artes. The trio of characters in Dom Casmurro, written in 1900, exemplifies what Miskolci has called “heteronormativity, Brazilian style.” Bento only manages to shoulder his role as husband and father because he is “braced” by his friendship-love for Escobar. “This is not about the exclusion of homoeroticism, but rather, its containment and disciplining within an amorous triangle that directs men toward reproductive heterosexual relations,” he explains. Brazilian heterosexual relations, as seen through Dom Casmurro, are therefore based both on a disciplined but deep bond between two men and on the relationship with a woman, the researcher believes.

By reading other novels from that time, one can vaguely see, according to Miskolci, other subtleties in the control of desire. In the daily life of the boarding school revealed in O Ateneu, the phantom that haunts the elite men seem to be the possibility of being treated, or mistreated, like a woman, rather more than the desire for people of the same sex. Raul Pompeia’s novel, from 1888, shows how masculinity comes to be disciplined: there are violent “pedagogical” practices that combat and disqualify any personality trait that might be associated with the feminine element. In other words, more than homosexuality, what it is necessary to contain, as seen through O Ateneu, is the existence of “effeminate” men. “The relation between masculinity, honor and violence, whether concrete or symbolic, seems to be a legacy from this period that I am studying, because it governs both heterosexual and homosexual masculinity in contemporary Brazilian society,” states the professor.

The Brazilian society of the late nineteenth century also feared mixed race homosexual relations, as Miskolci observes in connection with Bom crioulo, the novel by Adolfo Caminha that caused a scandal when it was published in 1895. In this book, Amaro, a fugitive slave who is the key character in the story, provides us with an image of what was then the current image of the black man: a sexual predator, dangerous and out of control. “There are many fears and sexual stereotypes that have been maintained or re-updated in our days,” explains the sociologist.

This does not concern outlining the history of homosexuals or of homosexuality in Brazilian society. The researcher says that his objective is to tell the history of the formation of our ideal of a nation from a subaltern viewpoint, i.e., a history of “the others:” excluded, abject, and marginalized by their non-normative sexuality. His survey tried to identify, in the shadows, the prohibited and impossible desires, the silenced loves.

In today’s society, the sociologist observes that gays and lesbians are also normalized identities, incorporated into the market and the liberal political ideas. The abject character in Brazil’s current society is not the white middle or upper class people that form monogamous couples that want to marry – even when these couples are homosexual. The stigmatized people are now the transvestites, the transsexuals, the “effeminate” men, the poor, the blacks, the individuals with HIV. “Those who remain at the bottom of the pyramid of sexual and social respectability are those that inherited the abjectness that I am studying at the end of the nineteenth century,” says Miskolci.

Reproductions from the book Caricaturistas brasileiros, Ed. Sextante Artes. In Bom crioulo, the researcher observes something that remains up-to-date: the cultural inclination to devalue blacks as amorous partners for men. Studies about Brazilian gays, such as those conducted by or developed under the guidance of Júlio Assis Simões, a professor at the Department of Anthropology at USP and a collaborating researcher at Pagu – Center of Gender Studies at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), have shown that the ideal partner is white and that blacks tend to be seen merely as occasional, exotic sexual partners. What takes place among heterosexual partners is different. As the book Razão, “cor” e desejo [Reason, “color” and desire], by Laura Moutino, a professor at the Department of Anthropology of the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazilian racism had the unexpected effect of “eroticizing” black men, as a result of which most of our heterosexual mixed-race couples consist of a black man and a white woman.

At the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, there was a desire for the nation to become whiter and more bourgeois than it actually was. Sexuality, according to Richard Miskolci, if it lacked centrality until the eighteenth century, should be seen, as from this time, as a key piece in the reconfiguration of the said national imaginativeness of the new-born Republic. The monarchy, symbolic indigenousness and Roman Catholicism formed a triad that would come to be replaced by a new understanding, now “scientific” and “racialized,” of what the Brazilian nation was. Desire and sex became central issues because of the fear of mixed-race relations and the uncertainties regarding the consequences of miscegenation.

Building the nation determined the “agencing” of desire into ideal forms, and in particular toward the reproductive heterosexuality of the stable monogamous couple, idealized as white or whitening. A “mixed” couple should consist of a white man – whiteness, power and masculinity were equivalent – and a mulatto woman – because black women were rejected. “This ideal combined expectations regarding sexuality and desire, dictated reproduction as the norm, and established that the latter should result in the “whitening” of the population. One should avoid any deviation of desire that might jeopardize the formation of the model reproductive couple, to which the expectation of giving rise to the desired nation, increasingly white and sexually normal, was attributed,” argues the sociologist.

Miskolci explains that he centered his research on men because of the need to explore better how the relations among them were reconfigured and what were the social expectations regarding their collective role. In sum, he says that apparently there was a progressive reduction of the importance of friendship among men, which became peripheral as compared to the relation with wife and family, which fulfilled the collective expectations about the reproduction of the nation. Fears regarding “deviations” from this male mission of “whitening” were backed by the “pedagogization” of sex and the “psychiatrization” of the “perversions.” Control of female sexuality would come to be based on the heirachy of white, mulatto and black women.

Reproductions from the book Caricaturistas brasileiros, Ed. Sextante Artes. In his interpretation of the nation’s desires, the sociologist bases himself on the work of Michel Foucault and on the academic field known as Subaltern Knowledge – the culturalized branch of Marxism that incorporated French post-structuralism and that has given rise, in our days, to the feminist line of thinking known as Queer Theory and to Post-Colonial Studies. To the literary works one must add the analyses of the political and scientific lines of discourse from that time. Among men of science in Brazil, most of them a combination of man of letters and scientist with political ambitions, there was discussion of the viability of a racially mixed nation. “This is a theme exhaustively explored by Brazilian social thinking when it comes to the issue of race and of miscegenation, but that, oddly enough, disregards non-reproductive relations, in particular between same-sex people.”

For the sociologist, literary works not only illustrate the period’s history, but also enable one to gain access to it by mean of subjective, unique experiences, which may even go against what was happening, sometimes. “The issue here is not the genius of the writers, but the characteristic of literary creation itself, which often escapes the control and the intent of its author,” states Miskolci. Whereas political and scientific discourses, which are more institutional and better articulated, tended to coincide rather than diverge, the literary expressions of that time enable us to vaguely see ambiguities, dissidence and, above all, the process of constituting the nation and various forms of resistance to it.