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The living past

Ecléa Bosi worked to show that memory is also used to reconstruct and rethink the present

LÉO RAMOS CHAVES The researcher and her books: scientific prose marked by literary and mythological referencesLÉO RAMOS CHAVES

Ecléa Bosi, professor in the Institute of Psychology at the University of São Paulo (IP-USP), died in July at the age of 80. Over the course of her career, she brought new relevance to her field in the Brazilian intellectual community with the research she performed on collectivity and memory. During her lifetime, her 1973 book Memória e sociedade – Lembrança de velhos (Memory and Society: Remembering the past), in which she bases her interviews with the elderly on the works of sociologists like Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945) and philosophers like Henri Bergson (1859-1941), would become an obligatory reference in the field.

“In a dialog with Halbwachs, Ecléa discusses the past as it was lived and felt by different groups, and then revealed and also filtered through collective memory,” explains José Moura Gonçalves Filho, a colleague of Bosi’s at IP-USP. “With Bergson, she presented memory as the reappearance of the deep, untamed past, almost free of the filters and only heard by people,” he says. “Memory, which is originally a collective endeavor, may develop as personal work that is more or less untied by ideologies. In these cases, it can lead the past to speak more than it could speak to groups.”

In his article Memória e Sociedade: Ciência poética e referência de humanismo (Memory and Society: Poetic science and humanistic reference), Paulo de Salles of the Department of Social and Labor Psychology within IP-USP cites some of the researchers who believed that Bosi’s work reaches beyond the frontiers of psychology. “Octavio Ianni [1926–2004], from the field of sociology, found ‘a beautiful life lesson’ in the book. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a political scientist, felt that ‘the social history of São Paulo was taken leagues deeper with this master dive.’” As Salles describes, the book reverberated outside Brazil as well: Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) “chose chapters of Memória e Sociedade for reading and debate with his graduate students in his courses,” and in Self Studies (1995), psychologist Karl Scheibe of Wesleyan University in the American state of Connecticut “applauds Memória e Sociedade as a miraculous encounter between lonely elderly people, the wait for illness or their final days, and a researcher who becomes a true friend.”

Explaining her research methods in Memória e Sociedade, Bosi wrote that her goal was “to record the voice and, through it, the lives and thoughts of people who have worked for their contemporaries and for us.” This understanding of memory is not to be confused with “history,” though history is part of it. It is also not simply “reliving.” Memory is an active resource for rebuilding and rethinking the present based on ideas of the past. This way of reflecting on individuals’ special relationships with the past was summarized in the title of Bosi’s 2003 book O tempo vivo da memória – Ensaios de psicologia social (The Living Time of Memory: Essays on social psychology).

Bosi sought to understand how social memory is constructed and what its complex relationship is with individual memory. How do they interrelate? What is remembered and what is forgotten? What meaning do memories have for the present day? What does old age mean in capitalist society? Bosi answered these questions from her field of study using stories recounted by her informants, a deeply ethical analysis, and scientific prose marked by literary and mythological references.

One example of Bosi’s work was her comparison of the narratives given by two sisters named Brites and Lavinia, who were interviewed for Memória e Sociedade. Bosi showed how there is a significant difference in the way they remember the end of World War I: Brites remembered her sister, six years older, coming home and waking her father to tell him about the event and the fact that a dance in Trianon was interrupted to play the National Anthem. “It was November 11,” Brites recalled. Lavinia, meanwhile, did not remember that fact—for her, “it was a thing with no repercussions,” though she explains that the French family likely celebrated it. Far from concerning herself with finding a single truth, Bosi was interested in understanding how the different observations of the same fact complement and counteract each other. “To find a memory, Ariadne’s thread is not enough [in Greek mythology, Ariadne gives a thread to the hero Theseus so that he may leave the labyrinth after facing the Minotaur]; threads must be unraveled from various spools, because memory is a meeting point of several threads,” she writes.

“Ecléa provided our understanding of the relations between the researcher and the research subjects with a very deep idea: that of a common destination,” explains José Moura. “This presupposes that, in order to understand his or her research subjects, the researcher must in some measure be involved with their chance and luck, their burdens and fortunes.” In the case of the book Memória e Sociedade, the common destination is the idea of aging; it is from this common point that the researcher must speak and listen to the subjects.

Another one of Bosi’s noteworthy writings was the one that resulted in her 1972 book Cultura de massa e cultura popular: Leituras e operárias (Mass Culture and Popular Culture: Readings from Workers). Bosi conducted interviews with factory workers and found women expressing a strong desire to have access to education for themselves or their children, and who spent a significant portion of their wages on high-interest loans in order to buy books. The books they bought were often worthless to the publishers, but they received a place of honor in the factory workers’ houses. One book could cost as much as eight days’ work.

Odair Furtado, professor of the social psychology program at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), says that this project—advised by Dante Moreira Leite (1927–1976), a pioneer in this field in Brazil—had a huge impact on students in the early 1970s. “Psychology has always had its more elitist groups within private practices or at universities. At the time, government organizations almost never hired psychologists,” Furtado recalls.

The social strata described by Bosi and also by psychologist Arakcy Martins Rodrigues, author of Operário, operária (Male Worker, Female Worker; 1978), broke with this logic, and was published in the middle of the Brazilian dictatorship. Bosi’s social and political commitment to her interviewees allowed her to design and implement changes beyond traditional research and advising. Along this vein, her most important activity was her creation and long-time coordination of the Opening Universities to the Elderly program. Created in 1994, the program allowed more than 100,000 seniors to participate in undergraduate courses, seminars, lectures, and exchanges of information and experiences with USP students.