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The arts of Roger Bastide

Articles on Brazil were fundamental for his concepts

ARQUIVO / AESixty years ago, Roger Bastide (1898-1974), the “Brazilian Frenchman” (as Gilberto Freyre referred to him) finally saw his dream come true, a dream that he had envisioned a short while after his arrival in Brazil to substitute anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss as full professor of sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP). On August 3 and 4, 1951, two ceremony-filled days, Bastide was accepted into the candomblé religion as the son of Xangô and was entitled to wear the red and white beads. An unusual paradox was the fact that this religious rite was the peak of Bastide’s scientific research studies in Brazil and, at the same time, a true expression of his “enchantment” with the discoveries. “Scientific research demanded that I go through preliminary steps of the rite of initiation. To the day I die I will be grateful to all the candomble priestesses who treated me as if I were their white son and understood, with their superior intuition, my desire for new cultural foods and sensed that my Cartesian reasoning would not bear new substances as true food,” he wrote in Estudos afro-brasileiros.

Bastide came to Brazil without knowing what to expect. “We will sail in a couple of hours and the seagulls are drawing cabalistic bells in the sky,” he wrote on board the ship that was taking him to the tropics, revealing a spirit open to the occult and to the irrational. In Brazil, he faced a complex issue: he wanted to interpret this new country, but how could he do that as a foreigner on a quest to understand the “Brazilian identity”? Would it be through his acquaintance with the modernistas, especially Mário de Andrade, who would teach him the search for the “exotic of the exotic,” of the “other of the other”? Hence the importance of his initiation and of his insertion into the discussion on the fine arts that the modernistas were having. “The fine arts, folklore, and the baroque teaching to Bastide that the originality of Brazilian culture was its hybrid quality, the unique result that stemmed from the meeting of distinct civilizations,” explains anthropologist Fernanda Arêas Peixoto, professor of USP and author of Diálogos brasileiros: uma análise da obra de Roger Bastide. Many things have been said about Bastide and his conversion to candomblé; but the art critic who rolled up his sleeves and left university to work in newspapers is much less familiar, in spite of the importance of his writing for the understanding of his train of thought. This gap is being gradually filled, as attested to by the recent launching of Impressões do Brasil, by Imprensa Oficial. The book is a collection of 11 articles that portray the Frenchman’s intellectual adaptation in Brazil and his involvement with national culture. “This passion for arts and literature was not a Sunday pastime for Bastide; it was an aesthetic discipline that he knew how to cultivate. The articles reveal the growing inclusion of Brazilian themes into his intellectual repertoire and how quickly and deeply he misled himself with old and contemporary Brazilian matters,” says literature professor Samuel Titan Jr., also from USP. Professor Titan Jr. and sociologist Fraya Frehse  were responsible for the organization of the articles in the book, including: “Machado de Assis, paisagista”; “Igrejas barrocas and cavalinhos de pau”; “Estética de São Paulo”; “Variações sobre a porta barroca”; and “Arte e religião: o culto aos gêmeos.

There is more good news. ?Scholars who study the work of Bastide usually come from the field of social sciences. Although Ariadne?s thread is efficient in terms of allowing us to move around the general aspects of his production, literature spreads out its own branches. Bastide?s open, foreign eyes were an important contribution and illuminated our own literature in a different way,? says Glória Carneiro do Amaral, a retired professor from USP, who is currently working as a researcher in the Post-graduate Literature Program at Mackenzie Presbyterian University. She wrote Navette literária França-Brasil: a crítica de Roger Bastide, a two-volume book recently published by Edusp. The book analyzes the literary reviews of Bastide and this is the first time that all his reviews – many of them not familiar to researchers who study Bastide – have been published as an anthology.

“Bastide thought and wrote about Brazil as he became more familiar with the country. During his routine journalist job as a reviewer he writes comments on the Brazilian visual arts and literature, discussing recent works. He views art as a way to understand Brazilian culture in the broader sense, linking it to cultural analysis. Based on artistic materials, he thought about the processes of ‘literary acculturation,’ the incorporation of blacks into literature, and aesthetic mixtures. The same process occurred in other fields of the art. He engaged in multidisciplinary activities at a time when this was not a common practice, as it is nowadays,” says Fernanda Peixoto. “The Brazil that emerges from the arts and from popular culture is a Brazilian mestiço  (mixed race) to which Bastide comes close from many different angles. He should be viewed as a linking element between the academic community and a broader intellectual scenario, representing, in the university and through these texts, the link between academia and the press; between the social sciences and literary modernism,” adds the researcher. “Bastide was deeply interested in our art and our literature. He became an active critic and scholar with a lot of weight in relation to the noteworthy interpretation of facts, ideas and works. His sociological view helped broaden interpretations, and he was one of the few scholars who was able to use the difficult combination of sociology and art reviews in a confident and light manner,” wrote Bastide’s former student in Recortes.

José Medeiros / Instituto Moreira Salles CollectionNovice painted by orixáJosé Medeiros / Instituto Moreira Salles Collection

However, this is not an issue of “art for the sake of art.” Bastide’s analyses of Brazil’s erudite and popular artistic production (folklore, fine arts, and literature) concentrate on the search for signs of Africa, that could be underlying themes in this production, or, in his words, ` we are looking for race in the pattern of the written work. “This production reveals a silent Africa, oppressed by cultured European models, exemplifying oppressed Africanism in Brazil. This is why Bastide turned concurrently to texts on art and studies on Afro-Brazilian religions, which obliged him to re-define his previous analyses,” Fernanda points out. “Artistic manifestations lead him to view Brazil from the point of a syncretism plot (the unequal competition between the European and African civilizations), which fights to impose its values and models on one hand and on the other hand, afforded him another observation angle,” she goes on. The researcher points out that, according to Bastide, the Afro-Brazilian religious cults are privileged places of reaction, the center of African resistance and allow one to “praise” Africa for its mixed racial makeup, a new form of understanding the African presence in Brazil. “This is the field of Bastide’s observations in Brazil: the triangle formed by Africa, Europe, and Brazil, the latter as the bargaining site of two symbolic systems: the African and the European,” says the professor. Religion allegedly has the power to invert the meaning of the syncretic equation, as the place in which the Afro contribution is the basis, and, as such, offers the interpreter the preferred way of understanding Africa in Brazil.

Nevertheless, why opt for Africa? The acquaintance between Bastide and Africa happened on Brazilian territory, during his first trip to Brazil’s Northeast Region, in 1944. “In view of the European and African sources, that feed Brazilian mysticism, he focuses his attention on Africa. This is a choice, but the only safe option – he believes – for anyone who wants to understand the unique characteristic of Brazilian mysticism. One could say that it is not the interpreter who chooses the African world as object of reflection, but rather that it is Africa which imposes itself upon the observer,” Fernanda points out. “Africa penetrates the ears, the nose, and the mouth, hits the stomach, imposes its rhythm on the body and the spirit, obliging him to move from the mysticism of stones and inlaid wood to the religion of the Africans,” Bastide wrote in Imagens do Nordeste em preto e branco. Bastide wrote this literary article in 1944 at the request of O Cruzeiro magazine. “African civilization, is the basis of (and in spite of) the words of Bastide; it is recreated in Brazil on the basis of the meeting of three civilizations. Thus, Brazil’s Africa, far from being a copy of the original model, is a re-creation, a product that is also a hybrid. It is a syncretic Africa, comprised of whites and blacks, as attested to by his studies on art and literature. For Bastide, the Negro is simultaneously united and separated in Brazilian society.”

Gilberto Freyre, a basic reference for Bastide, along with the modernistas and Florestan Fernandes (Bastide’s student and research colleague) studied syncretism from the point of view of Brazilian civilization. Bastide, on the other hand, turned to African civilizations and, as he wrote, “look at the issue from the other end of the telescope.” Bastide’s syncretism is, above all, a synonym of African resistance. This generated criticisms of the sociologist, viewed as looking to the past, a romantic in search of purity lost in time. “He makes an effort to isolate African worlds from the mestizo amalgam; at the same time, he is attempting to understand how these ‘African niches’ connect within society. The search of African islands is inseparable from the analysis of relationships, of coming closer and drawing away,” points out Fernanda.

José Medeiros / Instituto Moreira Salles CollectionNovice painted by OxumJosé Medeiros / Instituto Moreira Salles Collection

“Brazil is an exemplary case of the interpenetration of civilizations to be observed, and producer of theories that Bastide would use, not only to understand Brazil’s specificities but also to create his own analytical and conceptual instruments,” adds Fernanda. “Bastide was not a classroom sociologist; he was an intellectual who conducted detailed ethnographic and historical research studies. His texts are of value for the revival of Negro culture, now viewed as elaborate and valuable, and disdain the prejudiced perspective of Brazilian authors that preceded him,” points out sociologist Lísias Nogueira Negrão, full professor at USP and author of Roger Bastide: do candomblé à umbanda.

“For Bastide, looking at Africa in Brazil implies, perforce, looking at the opposite movement: looking at syncretic Brazil from Africa, as it is impossible to think about the country without Africa,” points out Fernanda Peixoto. Between 1950 and 1951, this reasoning moved into new directions because of the invitation Bastide received from Unesco to study racial relationships in Brazil, as at that time the country seemed to suffer less than other countries – or so it seemed from a distance – the effects of racial prejudice. As such, it would be desirable to understand the roots of this apparent harmony. Bastide joins his former student Florestan Fernandes, who will be crucial for Bastide’s reasoning in its final phase, especially in the evaluation of the nexus between the “old” and the “new” in Brazilian society.

“The optimistic tone of Florestan’s predictions is not echoed by Bastide, even though he finds the stronger acceptance of Negroes by new generations as being a noteworthy trait,” Fernanda points out. “But for Bastide, the matrix of the analysis is given by the persistence of elements in traditional society in the modern world and not by change. The Negroes’ difficulty in organizing themselves politically is because there is no ideology of rebellion. This is the result of an ideological ambivalence between pride at being a Negro and the feeling of inferiority, the adoption of the white man’s point of view.” In spite of the criticism he underwent, Bastide sees no aversion to anything modern in this attitude. On the contrary, as attested to by a lecture he gave in 1973, he refers to the myth of Prometheus, tortured by an eagle sent by the gods because he had stolen the “divine fire” from the gods and given it to mortals. “The myth of the origin of western civilization includes progress and decadence, generated by the same source. Bastide states that it is not possible to reflect on civilization and modernity (Prometheus) without incorporating the analysis of anti-modernity (the eagle) – two sides of the same coin.”

Thus, according to Bastide, the exporting of values to Third World countries (the generalization of modernity), which would have led to a homogenizing of the western model, did not materialize. Bastide questions if there is really only one model to achieve modernity and defends “differentiated modernity,” the result of what he saw and observed in Brazil in regard to African culture. He was a fan of the youth movements of the 1960s, examples of productive counter-modernity: the young people’s rebellion against western society was modeled on archaic forms of sociability, re-constructed by hippies and others. This proved the vitality of archaic models, which had survived more violent revolutions, taking shelter in niches. “Even after Bastide returned to France, his interest in the ‘Africas’ of the entire world persisted,” says Fernanda. Bastide’s concepts were forged in the State of Bahia, as pointed out by Jorge Amado when recalling the visit of his French friend – who spoke Portuguese with an accent – to a candomblé place of worship. “To this day, I have no idea how this French sociologist and the candomblé priestess – that little woman from the State of Bahia – were able to understand each other. This to me is a mystery as deep as the mystery of the Holy Trinity.”